Milestone Reached as Renewables Overtake Fossil Fuels in the UK

UK Wind Power and Low Demand Pushed Fossil Gas to 5-Year Low

Analysis by Ember reveals that a major milestone has been reached in 2020 in the United Kingdom, as renewables overtook fossil fuels as the main source of electricity.

With coal power already near zero, fossil gas was forced to a 5-year low in 2020 by growth in wind power and below-average demand due to Covid-19. While UK renewables production is dominated by wind, it still remains overly reliant on risky bioenergy, which must be replaced with cleaner power to fully decarbonise the UK grid.

Renewables also overtook fossil fuels in the EU-27 in 2020, as well as separately in Germany and Spain. See the report The European Power Sector in 2020 published by Ember and Agora Energiewende this week.

 

Renewables beat fossils

A record 42% of the UK’s electricity was generated by renewables in 2020, compared to 41% by fossil fuels. Nuclear plants generated the remaining 17%.

This was mainly driven by an increase in wind power. For the first time, a quarter (24%) of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines in 2020, doubling its share since 2015 and up from 20% in 2019.

While wind showed impressive growth, solar and hydro were unchanged since last year, making up only 4% and 2% of the UK’s electricity production respectively. This is the second year running that solar has remained stagnant, reflecting the lack of a supportive policy environment for the technology.

Bioenergy generated 12% of the UK’s electricity in 2020, posting slight growth since 2019. However, bioenergy is a much higher risk source of renewable electricity – for both climate and environmental outcomes* – than the other sources such as wind and solar. Further wind and solar growth will enable the UK to stop burning wood for power.

Gas under threat

Coal generated just 2% of the UK’s electricity in 2020, falling rapidly from 2015 when it delivered 23% of the UK’s electricity. With coal already near zero, rising renewables (+12TWh) and falling electricity demand (-17TWh) due to Covid-19 drove fossil gas generation to a 5-year low. Despite this, gas remains the UK’s single largest power source, generating 37% of UK electricity in 2020.

Fossil gas fell 15% from 2019 to 2020, with wind power taking 4 points off its generation market share. Reduced nuclear output, which fell 9% year-on-year, prevented fossil gas from posting even sharper declines. The reduction in nuclear output was partly due to the pandemic and partly due to ongoing performance issues at the UK’s ageing nuclear reactors. Although Covid-19 made 2020 an unusual year, our analysis shows that gas is now vulnerable to increasing renewable production.

 

Plans recently announced by the UK government to target 40GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 should ensure that the next decade sees further rapid declines in gas generation. It is clear that the UK has started its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.

Notes to editors

Contact

Hannah Broadbent. Head of Communications, Ember, hannah@ember-climate.org 

About Ember

Ember is an independent, not-for-profit climate think tank that produces cutting-edge research and high impact, politically viable policies that aim to accelerate the global electricity transition from coal to clean. https://ember-climate.org/

About Agora

Agora Energiewende is a non-for-profit think tank. It develops evidence-based and politically viable strategies for ensuring the success of the clean energy transition in Germany, Europe and the rest of the world.  www.agora-energiewende.org

About the research

For the last five years, Ember has published an annual report into the European power sector in conjunction with Agora Energiewende. This report compiles and analyses the full-year 2020 electricity generation of every EU-27 country and the UK.

Key definitions: 

  • Renewables: Wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy*
  • Fossil fuels: Coal (lignite and hard coal), fossil gas and other fossil fuels. “Other fossil fuels” is predominately the combustion of non-renewable waste (i.e in incinerators) to generate electricity, which represents about 75% of the total. The remainder is a small amount of remaining oil burning and some waste gases from industrial processes. 

*Note – for the purposes of this report, renewables are classified in line with the IPCC and include bioenergy. However, the climate impact of bioenergy is highly dependent on the feedstock, how it was sourced and what would have happened had the feedstock not been burnt for energy. The current EU bioenergy sustainability criteria do not sufficiently regulate out high-risk feedstocks and therefore electricity generation from bioenergy cannot be automatically assumed to deliver similar climate benefits to other renewables sources (such as wind and solar) over timescales relevant to meeting the commitments of the Paris Agreement. For more information please see Ember’s reports: The Burning Question (June 2020) and Playing with Fire (December 2019)

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