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Is the UK’s Energy Mix Becoming Greener?


The Historical Sources of Energy Supply

The UK’s electricity supply comes from thermal sources including nuclear, coal, gas and biofuels and renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal. Although the first public supply of electricity in the 1880’s used hydro power, coal quickly became the fuel of choice. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the majority of energy produced in the UK was from coal. Oil began to be used for generation in the 1950s and reached its peak in the early 1970’s overtaking hydro to become the second largest source of power but declined following the oil crises of the 70’s. By 1990 coal was still providing three quarters of the UK’s power but by 1995 this had reduced to 35 per cent and has stayed more or less at that level until declining recently.

The energy mix began to change with the development of nuclear power and subsequently as the UK started to produce its own gas. The first nuclear power stations began generating at commercial scale in the 1960’s, nuclear increased its share to over 20 per cent of total supply in 1990 and has provided a relatively consistent base load at that level ever since. The use of gas as a major fuel for generation dates from the commissioning of the first CCGT station in 1992. By 1995 gas supplied almost 20 per cent, and has steadily increased to supply between 30 and 40 percent, fluctuating under the influence of prices and availability of other sources. By 2008 renewable power had started to make its mark and was providing around 5 per cent of total generation.            

The Energy Mix Over the Last 5 Years

In 2010, gas and coal together accounted for around 75% of the electricity generated in the UK. In 2015 this combined percentage has fallen to around 50%. Nuclear energy has continued to account for around 20% of generation. The biggest growth has been in renewables which increased from less than 10% to 25% of the energy mix.


The UK’s Current Energy Mix

Low-carbon electricity’s share of generation (renewables and nuclear) has increased to over 45%, from 38% a year before. Of electricity generated in 2015, gas accounted for almost 31% (broadly unchanged compared to 2014) and coal 23% (a fall of 7 percentage points on 2014). The drop in coal power reflected the closure or temporary shutdown of coal power stations and the effect of the UK’s carbon tax which made coal plants less profitable to run.

Nuclears’ share of supply has remained relatively consistent at 21% of the total, with renewables' share of generation increasing by 6 percentage points on 2014 to a record 25%. Having overtaken nuclear in 2014, renewables now supply a greater proportion of energy to the grid than coal.


The UK Energy Mix in 2015

The Rise of Renewables

The last 10 years has seen the increase in renewable generation made up of hydro, waste, solar and the largest growing area of wind. Renewable electricity capacity increased to 30 GW, a 22% increase on a year earlier. While the overall figure for the UK is 25 per cent renewables now generate 57 per cent of Scotland’s power needs.

The record share of renewable generation reflected not only more renewable capacity, such as the construction of big offshore wind farms, but also more favourable weather conditions for renewable generation. Biomass energy, which is classed as renewable, also increased following the conversion of part of Drax, Britain’s biggest coal-fired power plant, to burn wood.

Sources of Renewable Electricity Generation in 2015


Future Trends in Energy Supply

The UK’s energy mix needs to meet the key policy objectives of affordability, sustainability and security of supply. The UK government has indicated which elements of the mix it will support. The sustainability agenda has driven policy towards closing unabated coal power stations by 2025. Plans for investment in carbon capture and storage have been scaled back, while support has been indicated for the use of fracking of shale gas to reduce reliance on gas imports.

The continuing growth in renewables will be influenced by the private sectors appetite to invest in renewable capacity which may be impacted by the UK governments cut in subsidies, with solar and onshore wind being hit hardest. Progression of the Swansea Tidal Lagoon and the proposed follow on tidal projects will be dependent on achieving an acceptable strike price. One of the most exciting areas of innovation could occur in energy storage which may create the opportunity for intermittent sources such as wind to develop a larger share. 

The nuclear new build programme will largely replace the existing fleet. Current estimates show new nuclear capacity coming on line in the mid 2020’s, however the potential for delays may require additional renewable and gas generation supplies or a postponement in decommissioning some of the coal plants. Small modular nuclear reactors show promise for lowering costs and the government is facilitating their development.

The UK’s energy supplies have shifted significantly from their reliance on coal which is due to be phased out within a 10 year timeline. Projections show gas-fired generating plants being required to pick up the shortfall in the near- to medium-term, with the improving cost effectiveness of renewables projected to supply the largest proportion of power to the grid from 2018. While the rise of renewables is set to continue a balanced portfolio made up of gas, nuclear, and renewables is likely to remain well into the future.


Shane Keaney is a director of A2O People a Recruitment and HR Consultancy specialising in the Nuclear, Energy, Water & Construction sectors that helps Employers to Recruit, Engage, Develop, and Retain employees.

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