Focus UK: The State of Renewable Energy 2015


In this article, Jon Hayward looks at the latest available figures for renewable energy use in the UK, to provide a better idea of how the region is really coming along in the switch to greener energy.

The UK has an abundance of renewable energy at its fingertips. The waves and tides in the seas that surround us, the wind, the sun and some sources of biomass -- energy stored in organic matter – all provide viable sources of natural, clean power. Unlike fossil fuels, which have traditionally been relied upon by the inhabitants of the British Isles, these sources of energy will never run out. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is unavoidable in the long run, but doing so sooner is essential for limiting the damage to our natural environment and reducing the effects of climate change.

As a country, we are legally bound to meet 15% of the UK’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020 [1]. This target is a result of the Renewable Energy Directive (2009) and is actually lower than the Europe-wide target of 20% by 2020. This is due to the country’s meagre capacity to produce renewable energy at the time of the directive. This article looks at the latest available figures for renewable energy use in the UK to give you a better idea of how we’re really doing with the switch to greener energy.
How much energy does the UK use?
Before we look at how much renewable energy we produce and where it comes from, it’s worth looking at how much energy we actually need. The amount of energy consumed in the UK is: 196 Mtoe per year. (Mtoe stands for million tonnes of oil equivalent and is the amount of energy released by burning one million tonnes of crude oil.) To put that into perspective, the whole world consumes over 12500 Mtoe per year, and the United States alone almost 2500 Mtoe. 
Although this figure is high for such a small country, the UK has at least become more efficient in how it uses energy. As a result the UK's energy consumption has dropped significantly since the early to mid 2000s.
 Where does the UK’s energy come from?
The amount of energy produced in the UK itself (indigenous production) is currently enough to meet approximately 57% of the country’s energy demands. The need for imported energy is measured by net import dependency, a figure that has been on the rise and reached a record high in 2013.
A large proportion of our imported energy comes in the form of fossil fuels; coal, primarily from Russia; gas, largely from Norway; and oil. Our dependency on fossil fuels has, however, been slowly declining.
Where does the UK’s renewable energy come from?
By far the largest source of renewable energy used in the UK, in input terms, comes in the form of bioenergy. This includes gas from landfills and sewage, and other fuels for burning such as waste wood and agricultural byproducts. As well as for electricity generation, biofuel is used for both heating/cooling purposes and for transport fuels. The downside of bioenergy is that a large proportion of its energy is lost in the conversion to electricity, making other renewable sources more sustainable in the long run (particularly for electricity generation).
What is the UK’s renewable energy used for?
The vast majority of the UK's green energy is used for electricity generation. As of Q2 2014 renewable energy represents almost 17% of the UK's electricity generation, an increase from 15.9% at the same time in 2013. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
How much of the UK’s energy is from renewable sources?
Based on calculations set out by the 2009 EU Renewable Directive, the percentage of energy consumption in 2013 that came from renewable sources is: 5.2%. The Government’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) claim that this figure is on track to meet the country’s 15% goal. But all it takes is a quick search online to see that there's varying degrees of confidence, from experts and amateurs alike, in whether this is the case or not.
Renewable Electricity in the UK
As a country, our capacity for generating electricity from renewable sources has grown steadily since the 2009 Directive. The most significant growth has come from wind and solar power. Onshore wind has been the single technology that has led the growth in the generation of renewable electricity. There are now over 600 onshore wind sites and 4500 turbines across the United Kingdom. With another 600+ planned or under construction, this rate of growth does not show any signs of slowing down.
Solar photovoltaics (PV) have seen a particularly strong growth in the past few years, due to the increased uptake from schemes supported by government initiatives, such as Renewables Obligations (RO) and the smaller Feed in Tariff (FiT) scheme. In 2013 electricity generation from solar PV increased a full half on 2012.
The Future of Renewable Energy in the UK
It's clear that the way energy is being generated and used in Britain is in a state of transformation. More renewable energy is being generated by individuals through the likes of home solar panels and wind turbines, and the country is becoming more and more energy efficient. However, this isn't enough. If the country is going to make the switch to green energy, it's going to rely heavily on major private investors and large companies committing to change. Additionally, despite evidence that public support for renewable energy is strengthening, there is a long way to go in this regard too. In January this year DECC produced its first Community Energy Strategy. This report set out the role that communities can have in helping to meet the United Kingdom's renewable energy and climate change targets. It's this larger scale public support that could be the catalyst required to push real and meaningful change.

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This article is featured in:
Bioenergy  •  Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Other marine energy and hydropower  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling  •  Wave and tidal energy  •  Wind power