Can the UK run on 100% renewable energy?

27/04/2021

Can the UK run on 100% renewable energy?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a role in portraying what a cleaner world could look like, where  following national lockdowns and restrictions, nitrogen dioxide levels and small particle pollution were significantly lower when compared to the previous year.

As well as this, the pandemic has shown us that behavioural changes can cause a greater, even worldwide, impact. Some of the responses to coronavirus, such as unnecessary travel, may therefore continue in the fight against climate change. For example, a poll carried out by the AA in 2020 revealed that 22% aim to drive less after lockdown has ended, and 36% plan to increase their levels of self-propelled transport such as walking and cycling.

One significant outcome for the UK following Covid-19 is “build back better”, where the pandemic has provided the unique opportunity to ‘hit reset’ and realign goals to push a green recovery. A key area of this is the new ambitious targets and investments for renewable power infrastructure.

With this new enhanced focus on renewables, and public favour of renewable energy increasing, this raises the question - can the UK run on 100% renewable energy?

In this article we will look at the UK’s progression towards 100% renewable energy, and potential factors that could benefit or hinder the likeliness of this happening in reality.

hydro electric plant

 

Why renewable energy is so important

Renewable energy is derived from natural resources, such as sunlight, wind, rain, waves, biomass and thermal energy. There are many benefits to utilising renewable sources for energy, such as the fact that these resources are virtually inexhaustible, as well as cause little climate or environmental damage.

Alternatively, fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas are only available in finite quantities, meaning that they are unsustainable and will eventually run out. Also, fossil fuel combustion releases climate-damaging greenhouse gases, which contributes to global warming.

The electricity sector is where the large majority of UK emissions cuts have occurred over the past decade, and therefore, utilising renewable, green energy is a key area that will contribute towards the UK’s goal of having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

 

Historical fossil fuel dependence in the UK / From Industrial Revolution to Green Revolution

We often hear about the rapid growth of renewable technologies, but how much of an impact has this had on our energy system? Undoubtedly, since the Industrial Revolution, the UK has made strong strides in moving towards potentially running on 100% renewable energy.

Historically, since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels were the dominant electricity source for most countries across the world, including the UK. In fact, the UK’s electricity mix relied almost completely on fossil fuels. For example, in 1970, 96.5% of energy consumption was attributable to fossil fuels.

This trend continued for some time. Even from 2010, around three quarters of the UK’s total electricity generated was still generated from fossil fuels, and this was over ten times as much as the electricity that came from renewable sources.

However, 2010 was arguably a key turning point for renewables in the UK, where since 2010 electricity generation from renewables has considerably grown. For example, from 2010 - 2020, the share of electricity production from renewables has grown 35.42%, compared to the previous decade’s growth of only 4.23%.

Now, generation from renewable sources has been increasing year on year. In fact, Q3 2019 marked the first ever quarter where renewables outpaced fossil fuels in the UK, making up 38.9% of total electricity generation, compared to 32.9% the previous year.

Although this progress still isn’t close to the UK running on 100% renewable energy, it is certainly a step in the right direction and arguably the start of a new era – the “Green Revolution”.

wind farm golden hour

 

The future of renewable energy in the UK

As discussed, there is clear success of increasing renewable sources into the UK’s energy mix, particularly over the last decade. However, in order to meet the UK’s current target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, the Climate Change Committee estimates that 87% of electricity would have to come from nuclear or renewable energy by 2030, when right now it is only around 40%. This, alongside the UK’s commitment to net-zero in 2050, means there is still a long way to go. Whilst this is admittedly an “ambitious target”, the UK has made some major recent steps in the right direction, which will also allow the possibility of 100% renewable energy to be one step closer.

Recent government commitments

The UK Government has recently made a number of commitments within renewables as part of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which includes advancing offshore wind, greener buildings, and investing in carbon capture and storage.

One notable area is the commitment to advance offshore wind. Arguably, the UK is leading the world in offshore wind, where more electricity is generated from this source in the UK than any other country. This is also key to the UK’s renewable successes so far, where Ember, an independent climate and energy think-tank, state that the UK’s growing windfarms is one of the key reasons for the country’s renewable record. In fact, almost a quarter of the electricity generated last year was from wind turbines, which was double the share from 2015.

By 2030, the UK aims to deliver 40GW of offshore wind power, quadruple capacity, and scale floating windfarms twelvefold. These policy impacts will attract investments, create jobs, and cut emissions by 5% of 2018 levels.

Although the Ten Point Plan has faced some criticisms, such as being “unrealistic” or “vague”, the overall support towards a ‘Green Revolution’ and embracing renewable technologies is certainly a good start.

The lowering cost of renewables

Due to government policy and innovation in the industry, the cost of generating electricity from renewable sources has significantly decreased.  Now, the lowest-cost sources of renewables are as cheap as, or cheaper than, new fossil fuel alternatives. In fact, a recent Carbon Tracker report suggests new renewable power is cheaper than over half of the existing coal plants and will be cheaper everywhere by 2030.

Offshore wind is one area that has increasingly become a competitive source for electricity generation in the UK compared to fossil fuel generation. For example, for projects coming online in the mid-2020s, costs have fallen by around £100/MWh, which is below the cost of new gas-fired generation. Solar and batteries have also recently seen rapid cost reductions. For example, since 2010, PV modules and battery prices have fallen by more than 80%.

The Climate Change Committee predicts that this trend will continue well into the 2020s. Therefore, the competitive nature of renewables could be strong reinforcement for the UK to continue shift away from coal and fossil fuels for electricity generation, bringing closer the likelihood of the UK running on 100% renewable energy in the future.

Implications from Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been a struggle for many. However, the pandemic has also curtailed global coal consumption, and shone a light on renewables that may change consumption patterns for good. For example, the International Energy Agency has stated that over the course of the pandemic, we have seen the largest worldwide decline in coal consumption since World War Two. In contrast, renewable energy has been the most resilient energy source during the pandemic, and generation actually increased by 3% in early 2020.

Similarly, in the UK, there was a sudden drop in demand for energy from the national grid as shops and other businesses closed during the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions. To prevent the national grid from being overwhelmed with surplus electricity, gas plants were left idle and nuclear reactors lowered their output, which allowed renewable energy to steal a larger share of the electricity mix. Though this may seem like a short-term win, thinktank Ember have predicted that renewable electricity will continue to maintain this lead, even after the economy has recovered and normal demand levels return.

Indeed, it seems that during the pandemic the UK government has deepened their commitment to climate action and has seen it as an opportunity to grow back in a way that will shape a low-carbon future, such as through their “build back greener” message. By having economics and environment targets intertwined, the transition to low-carbon activities, including renewable energy generation, may be accelerated.

Arguably, this shift in focus is replicated by the UK public, where a 2020 poll by IPOSO highlights that 66% Britons believe Climate Change is as serious as Coronavirus, and the majority want Climate prioritised in an economic recovery. Similarly, businesses are rallying behind this idea, where over 200 UK business leaders believe the lockdown should be used as a springboard to propel a green economy.

However, it is also important to note that achievements and projections under Covid-19 may not be sustainable or realistic once the level and nature of UK economic activity returns to ‘normal’. And, as mentioned, there has been criticisms over the government’s policies and strength of commitment. Overall, there is much uncertainty surrounding the UK recovery from Covid-19, but the enhanced focus on a ‘green recovery’ from the government, businesses and the public may help drive accelerated and meaningful change for the future, or at the very least be a good starting point.

geo thermal power plant

 

Potential challenges for 100% renewable energy in the UK

On the other hand, there are also some potential stumbling blocks that may hinder the UK’s progression towards running on 100% renewable energy.

 

Transforming the wider energy system

One significant challenge that could hinder the UK’s progression towards running on 100% renewable energy is the supporting the role of renewables in the wider energy system.

The Climate Change Committee claims that reaching the UK’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will require not only electricity to be delivered to the public in zero-carbon forms, but all forms of energy (i.e. hydrogen, hot water, heating). Similarly, data from IRENA’s 2018 report supports this idea, stating that one-third of global energy-related emissions are from sectors where there are currently no fossil fuel alternatives, such as from industry and transport. This means that for the UK to truly run on 100% renewable energy, there will have to be a full and considerable transformation to the whole energy system – not just electricity generation.

IRENA argues that one key “missing link” in this energy transition could be hydrogen. Hydrogen provides the promise of a clean source of fuel and heat for homes, transport, and industry. However, 95% of current hydrogen is made from reforming fossil fuels, which involves using energy to convert fossil fuels into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Therefore, to make this a carbon neutral process, the carbon dioxide must be removed by carbon capture and storage, and therefore there is some debate as to whether this is considered “green”.

Alternatively, hydrogen can also be made from electrolysis, where electricity can separate hydrogen and oxygen. With no carbon dioxide by-product, and the option for renewable-generated electricity to be used in the process, this method is dubbed “green hydrogen”. But, this method is not yet economically competitive, with only 4% of hydrogen being supplied via electrolysis in 2019. In fact, the EU predicts it will likely be over a decade until this will become a viable option.

Overall, hydrogen is just one option that can help facilitate coupling between electricity and buildings, transport and industry. So far, the UK government have stated they are committed to “driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen”, as well as other technologies that will help transform the entire energy system. But although the technologies may be “ready” in theory, there is still a lot more support and investment needed in the industry to make this possible.

 

Utilising low-carbon sources of energy for a more flexible energy system

Whilst it is impossible to predict the exact mix of technologies we will use in the future, there are other forms of alternative energy that are considered low-carbon sources, such as nuclear, bioenergy, and fossil fuels combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Whilst these may be considered key for the UK’s path to net-zero, these sources are arguably not renewable by nature.

However, the National Infrastructure Commission’s 2020 report argues that renewables alone cannot create a resilient future energy system, and other innovations and low-carbon sources will be needed to support renewables and ensure the security of the system.

One reason for this is because some forms of renewable energy are considered variable, such as wind as solar (i.e. the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine). Therefore, if our energy system were to be dominated by variable renewable energy, this could introduce the challenge of meeting supply and demand needs. Therefore, there need to be further investment in storage solutions, interconnectors, and more if the UK were to ever be 100% renewable, so that the reliability and security of the system is maintained.

Similarly, utilising low-carbon sources, like nuclear energy, can help reduce this demand and supply risk by helping meet demand when we require more energy. Whilst these sources are not strictly renewable, they are arguably “greener” than fossil fuels, producing little to no greenhouse gasses.

Considering this, it does raise questions as to whether the UK running on 100% renewable energy would be possible in the near future. However, if we were to ask, “can the UK run on 100% low-carbon or zero-carbon sources of energy?”, the answer would likely be different. 

solar panel farm

 

So, can the UK run on 100% renewable energy?

The simple answer is yes. In theory, the UK can run on 100% renewable energy, and the discussed policies, investment, lowering cost of renewables, and behavioural changes from Covid-19 are all factors that are likely to accelerate the progression to 100% renewable energy. The idea of running on renewable energy also greatly supported by the UK public, where the latest Public Attitudes Tracker by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows that 80% of people support the use of renewable energy, and only 3% oppose.

However, although it is possible in theory, there are many factors that would have to be considered to determine whether the UK running on 100% renewable energy would happen in reality. For example, foundations would need to be in place for a sustainable long term, such as further innovations into ensuring the cost-effectiveness, reliability, and security of the system, as well as ensuring the transformation is applied across the wider energy system as a whole.

Overall, the change is certainly in the right direction, and with public attitudes pushing for renewable energy, this change will likely be enhanced in the near future. However, there are still considerable challenges to overcome, so whether – or how soon – 100% renewable energy is possible in the UK is still questionable.

 

 

Renewable energy and your business

Small businesses can help in the UK’s path to net-zero delivery. One way is through transforming their own operations, such as by using electric vehicles (EVs), switching to renewable energy, or running from low-carbon buildings.

Valda Energy can help your business switch to 100% renewable energy today. Get a quote now for our 100% renewable energy offering - or contact us to find out more about how we can help your SME stand out as a green business.