If you had to say which country has the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, Europe’s biggest floating solar park and electricity from the dregs of Fruit Pastilles, you might not guess it was the UK.
But over the past five years, with the help of more than £10bn in subsidies, Britain has quietly become a star in the world of green power.
For the first time, renewable sources provided more power over the year than coal, the fuel that made the UK the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
That puts Britain within shouting distance of Germany, home of the “Energiewende” green power revolution. Germans generated 27 per cent of their electricity from renewables two years ago and about 33 per cent last year.
The speed at which renewables have grown in the UK last year led the government to start curbing some subsidies, which are largely paid for by levies on consumer energy bills.
A drive through the British countryside reveals part of the picture, as fields once covered by grass and sheep have been dotted with towering white wind turbines and football pitch-sized solar parks.
But much of the change has happened out of sight, in places such as the outer Thames estuary, where the huge London Array wind farm generates more electricity than some coal-fired power stations.
Or inside Nestle’s factory in Fawdon, where an anaerobic digestion plant turns leftovers from making sweets such as Fruit Pastilles and Toffee Crisps into biogas that can produce electricity and heat.
Just as unobtrusively, part of a reservoir near Heathrow has been covered in so many solar panels that it has become Europe’s biggest floating solar farm.
From the world’s biggest offshore wind farm to the companies generating energy from the waste of sweets, whisky and cows, read how the UK is undergoing a quiet renewables revolution
The UK recently became the world’s third-largest market for big solar parks after China and the US, according to Philip Wolfe, a renewables pioneer who campaigned for the green subsidies launched in 2010 that helped drive Britain’s green transformation.
The renewables shift is something “we have embraced very rapidly as a country”, he says, even if it is rarely trumpeted by political leaders who seem more influenced by what he calls a “noisy minority” of opponents.
For all that, Britain has achieved a great deal over the course of its energy transition, says James Court, head of policy at the Renewable Energy Association.
“There are now solar PV modules [solar panels] installed on over 800,000 homes and businesses,” he says, as well as the world’s largest offshore wind industry, nearly 30 grid-scale energy storage facilities and several biomass power plants.
But the future of the UK’s green conversion is unclear.
Shortly after taking office last year Amber Rudd, the Conservative secretary of state running the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said she would rein in green subsidies to protect “hard-working families” from higher energy bills.
At least two solar power companies have since gone into administration and some analysts say more could follow in a renewable energy sector that employed more than 112,000 people in 2014.
The energy department says it will continue to support the renewables industry. “But for this to be sustainable long-term it needs to be driven by competition and innovation, not subsidies,” a spokesperson said.
“As the renewables sector advances, the cost of technologies such as solar has fallen and therefore so has our consumer-funded support.”
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