How much of the UK’s energy is renewable?

With the UK aiming to reach net zero by 2050, a crucial part of the strategy is to transition to an electricity system with 100% zero-carbon generation and much of this is expected to come from renewable energy.

Renewable energy is already part of our electricity mix (the different energy sources that make up our electricity supply), but how much are we using currently, and how much more will we need in order to reach net zero?

Why is renewable energy important? 

Clean power generation is front-and-centre of the UK’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, with the government setting energy providers a target for all electricity to come from 100% zero-carbon generation by 2035.

Burning fossil fuels to create electricity has long been a major contributor in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into our atmosphere. As renewable energy sources emit low or no carbon emissions, they are considered vital in the race to tackle climate change.
 

What renewables are used to generate electricity?

Today, there are four main renewable energy sources used to power the UK: wind, solar, hydroelectric and bioenergy. They harness the natural power of the sun, our weather, our waterways and tides, and organic materials to generate electricity.

Currently, the majority of the electricity entering the national grid from a single energy source is natural gas. Natural gas is a largely imported fossil fuel and can emit harmful GHGs such as carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned to generate electricity.

 

Three men standing in front of solar panels in solar farm field, with wind turbines and pylons in the background

How much of our energy currently comes from renewable sources?

Today, renewable energy sources make up a significant proportion of the electricity mix that powers our homes and businesses. And the UK is well on its way to creating an electricity system that’s wholly based on renewable and carbon-free sources.

2020 marked the first year in the UK’s history that electricity came predominantly from renewable energy, with 43% of our power coming from a mix of wind, solar, bioenergy and hydroelectric sources.

The UK is on the cusp of producing its trillionth kilowatt hour (kWh) of renewable energy since 1970. While it took 47 years (from 1970 to 2017) to produce the first half trillion, we will have produced the second half trillion between 2017 and 2023 alone.
 

How has our use of renewables changed?

By the end of 1991, renewables accounted for just 2% of all electrical generation in the UK. By 2013 this figure had risen to 14.6%.

2017 placed Britain into the position as one of Europe’s leaders in the growth of renewable energy generation. Only countries like Iceland, Norway and Sweden, who had more established renewable schemes, used more on a relative scale.

In 2019, zero-carbon electricity production overtook fossil fuels for the first time, while on 17 August renewable generation hit the highest share ever at 85.1% (wind 39%, solar 25%, nuclear 20% and hydro 1%).

In the last quarter of 2021, individual renewables contributed the following:

  • Wind power contributed 26.1% of the UK’s total electricity generation in Q4 2021, with onshore and offshore wind contributing 12% and 14% respectively.

  • Bioenergy, the burning of renewable organic materials, contributed 12.7% to the renewable mix.

  • Solar power contributed 1.8% to the renewable mix – this represented a 24% increase compared to Q4 2020, due to a 0.7 gigawatt (GW) increase in installed capacity.

  • Hydropower, including tidal, contributed 2.1% to the renewable mix.
     

Breaking records: The UK’s renewable energy in numbers

2020 was the UK’s highest year on record for renewable generation so far, and we’ve been breaking records for renewables ever since.

  • Zero-carbon power in Britain’s electricity mix has grown from less than 20% in 2010 to nearly 50% in 2021. In contrast, power provided from fossil fuels was down to roughly 35% in 2021 compared with over 75% in 2010.

  • In 2020 renewables accounted for more than 43.1% of the UK's total electricity generated, at 312 terawatt hours (TWh). This outstripped fossil fuels over the course of a year, for the first time in the nation’s history.

  • 2020 also saw UK have its longest run of coal-free power, with a total of 68 days between 10 April and 16 June. This is the longest coal-free period since the industrial revolution, which began in the mid-1700s!

  • Zero-carbon generation overtook fossil fuel consumption in 11 months of the year in 2021.

  • 2021 was the second highest year for renewable generation on record, after 2020.

  • On 5 April 2021, the UK achieved its lowest ever carbon intensity at 39 grams of CO2 per kWh, due to reduced use of fossil fuels for electricity generation. This was made possible by a 60% increase in the rate of renewable capacity installed in 2021 (compared to 2020).

  • 25 May 2022 holds the record for the maximum amount of wind power generation, at 19.9 GW.

 

How long will it take to switch to renewable energy?

It’s important to remember that the aim is not for renewables to be our sole provider of energy, but they will play a major part in the energy mix alongside other clean and green energy sources.

This said, renewable energy has grown ten-fold since 2004 and the UK looks on track to continue to increase renewable generation – with renewable energy sources making up 42.8% of the UK’s total electricity generation between October and December 2021.

It’s anticipated that the UK’s renewable capacity will increase dramatically over the next decade. Plans are already in action to increase offshore wind’s output from 11 GW to 50 GW by 2030 – helped by a £200 million government cash injection and financial incentives. Meanwhile, solar capacity could grow five-fold from 14 GW to roughly 70 GW in the same period.

Combine renewables with other low-carbon electricity sources, such as nuclear (16%), and it indicates that our green infrastructure is heading in the right direction to be capable of reaching the government’s 2035 target; and ultimately reaching net zero in the specified time frames.