UK Electricity Generation Falls To 1994 Levels As Renewable Generation Soars

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A new analysis from UK-based website Carbon Brief has found that electricity generation in the United Kingdom last year fell to its lowest level since 1994, while at the same time, renewable energy electricity generation increased to another record high and accounted for an estimated 33% in 2018.

1 gw of wind power scotlandCarbon Brief can be relied upon to provide regular analysis of the UK’s electricity systems in addition to its news coverage of global climate science, climate policy, and energy policy. The site is dedicated to “improve the understanding of climate change, both in terms of the science and the policy response” and, earlier this month, published an analysis of UK electricity generation data from BM ReportsSheffield Solar, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Specifically, according to Carbon Brief, a total of 335 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity was generated in the United Kingdom in 2018, down slightly on the 339 TWh generated in 2017. The last time levels were this low was 1994, when total electricity generation amounted to 326 TWh, which was followed a year later by 337 TWh.

UK Electricity Generation From 1920 to 2018

UK electricity generation 1920-2018, terawatt hours (TWh) per year (blue line) and what would have happened if per-capita generation had remained at 2005 levels (dashed yellow line). Source: BEISBM ReportsSheffield Solar and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief

Electricity generation in the UK in 2018 fell by 63 TWh, or 16%, from 2005 levels despite the fact the UK population increased by 10% over the same period. Further, according to Carbon Brief, if per capita electricity generation had continued at 2005 levels, then the total in 2018 would have measured 439 TWh, meaning that the country has saved 103 TWh relative to constant per capita generation.

Similarly, UK electricity generation continues to track away from traditional economic orthodoxy, which states a growing economy must be matched by a growing use of electricity. In fact, as can be seen below, the break between generation and GDP split decades ago, in 1980, since when the economy has expanded more than two-fold.

UK Economic Growth versus UK Electricity Generation

Changes in UK real GDP (yellow) and electricity generation (blue) relative to their levels in 1980, which is set equal to 100. Source: World BankBEISBM ReportsSheffield Solar and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief

At the same time as this decoupling is taking place, so too is a significant decline in the use of fossil fuels — especially coal, which has taken a hard nosedive ever since 2012 (see below). Low-carbon sources accounted for a record 53% of the total electricity generated in 2018, according to Carbon Brief, a new record thanks in large part to strong growth in the UK’s wind sector, which increased by 16% to generate 58 TWh in 2018. Offshore wind capacity nearly doubled over the course of 2018 and more are set to open in 2019, while solar generation increased by 11% to reach 13 TWh in 2018.

Annual electricity generation in the UK by source (terawatt hours). Source: BEISBM ReportsSheffield Solar and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief

In response to Carbon Brief’s analysis, the UK’s renewable energy industry crowed at the pace of growth seen in 2018, and the continued decline of fossil fuels. The following comments were provided via email upon request to CleanTechnica.

“We’ve seen an absolutely astonishing increase of 16% in the amount of electricity generated by wind in 2018,” said RenewableUK’s Deputy Chief Executive Maf Smith.

“Wind technology is advancing so fast, and costs are dropping so rapidly, that we were able to install a record 2 gigawatts of new offshore wind in 2018 – enough to power more than 2,300,000 homes a year, smashing the previous record of 1GW. We’re looking forward to the next auction for new power in which we expect offshore wind costs to fall even further, which will benefit consumers.

“A record one-third of the UK’s electricity is now coming from renewables, and fossil fuels are continuing to decline. This is one of the best examples of our country taking real action against climate change and we can all be proud of it. More than 50% of the UK’s power now comes from low carbon sources thanks particularly to growth of onshore and offshore wind, which is a great way to start 2019, but we need to continue building renewables in the years ahead to maximise our natural resources.” – Smith

“Carbon Brief’s analysis highlights some very welcome developments for both energy efficiency and renewables in 2018, and shows that solar, wind, and other technologies are no longer a niche alternative but are in fact contributing towards a substantial chunk of the energy mix. They’ve also brilliantly highlighted the value of demand reduction,” said Jack Dobson-Smith from the UK’s Solar Trade Association.

“We saw another record-breaking year for solar PV last year, with a new daily output record peaking at 9.42GW at 11:30am on May 14, and a new weekly output record producing 533GWh between June 21 and 28. We hope to see more record-breaking in 2019 and beyond, with a slew of new large-scale solar projects in the pipeline. However, these super figures unfortunately disguise the paltry deployment of new solar capacity in 2018 with only an estimated 200MW deployed.

“It is imperative that Government tackles the key barriers facing all sub-markets in the solar industry and brings about a level playing field in 2019. Fair treatment will greatly benefit consumers.”

“As far as the climate is concerned, the important thing is not only using more and more renewables, but also less and less fossil fuels, and energy efficiency has done just as much as clean generation to reduce emissions from the power sector,” added Mel Evans, Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace UK. “And it’s done so with none of the fanfare, or the controversy. Loft lagging and better designed fridges might not have the big kit glamour of new power stations, but they quietly and cheaply get on with doing the same vital work. If Liz Truss is serious about getting the most bang for the government’s buck when cutting emissions, she should recommend a lot more support for efficiency measures.”

“The UK’s extraordinary progress on growing the economy while lowering electricity use is the result of the most successful, and least well known, European energy efficiency policy, called the Ecodesign Directive,” concluded Dustin Benton, Policy Director at the UK’s Green Alliance. “Over the past decade or so, it’s been staggeringly successful: over a decade, refrigerators cut energy use by a third, and lighting energy demand has fallen by nearly 80%. It’s the reason why UK energy bills have fallen in real terms, and has helped low carbon power become the backbone of the UK’s electricity mix.”

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Joshua S Hill

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