UK electricity generation falls to lowest level since 1994, with low carbon sources dominating

Electricity generation from renewable sources rose to a record high last year, accounting for an estimated one-third of the UK total, according to analysis by Carbon Brief.

Adding the contribution of nuclear plants, low carbon sources supplied just over half (53%) of UK generation in 2018, with the share from fossil fuels at its lowest ever. Perhaps more interestingly, the amount of electricity generated in the UK in 2018 fell to its lowest level since 1994, added the UK-based climate and energy policy website.

Indeed, lower per-capita electricity generation and cleaner supplies have contributed roughly equal shares to the reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions since demand peaked in 2005, said Carbon Brief. This has helped to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions even as the economy grows and population rises. 

The history of UK electricity since 1920 shows rising generation, barring the 1974 three-day week and the recession and miners’ strikes of the early 1980s. It then levelled off in the early 2000s and has been declining since 2005. 

Generation in 2018 was some 63 TWh (16%) lower than in 2005, a reduction equivalent to 2.5 times the output of the new nuclear plant being built at Hinkley Point in Somerset, adds Carbon Brief, despite the UK population increasing by 10% over the same period.

Carbon Brief’s analysis of UK electricity generation in 2018 is based on figures from BM Reports, Sheffield Solar and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Official annual statistics from the government are published each August.

Government energy statistics for the third quarter of 2018 also show a record high for low carbon electricity – 56% of electricity generated during July to September was from low carbon sources. This was due to an increase in generation from renewables, making up a record 33% in that quarter; an increase in the amount of projects installed (capacity up by 10%) on the same period last year; and more favourable weather.

Coal power made up just 2.5% of electricity generation in the same period, a dramatic fall from the 17% three years previously.

Concentrating on renewables, trade association RenewableUK highlighted several major steps forward for wind and marine energy in 2018:
  • A fresh wind energy generation record was set on Tuesday 18 December, with onshore and offshore wind generating 15 GW between 11.15 am and 12.15 pm, equivalent to 34.7% of Britain’s electricity needs. This beats the previous record of 14.9 GW set in November. 
  • A record amount of UK offshore wind capacity was installed in 2018, with more than 2 GW going operational in UK waters – nearly double the previous annual record of 1.1 GW set in 2012. 
  • The opening of Walney Extension meant that the UK hit a milestone of 20 GW of onshore and offshore wind generation capacity; enough to power over 14mn homes.
  • In the marine energy sector, the world’s first commercial-scale tidal stream array, MeyGen in the Pentland Firth went fully operational in April, with a capacity of 6 MW. 
  • ScottishPower became the first major energy supplier in the UK to generate 100% of its power from wind in October, having closed all its coal power plants and sold off its gas stations. The company has 40 operational wind farms in the UK, onshore and offshore, with a total capacity of over 2 GW.

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