General Election - Climate Change...BLACK LAW, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 29: Wind turbines are silhouetted against the sun at Black Law wind farm on January 29, 2010 in Black Law, Scotland. As the UK gears up for one of the most hotly contested general elections in recent history it is expected that that the economy, immigration, the NHS and education are likely to form the basis of many of the debates. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Wind turbines generate an increasing proportion of the UK's power needs © Getty

Britain generated more electricity from renewable and nuclear energy in 2017 than from gas and coal, marking the first year that low-carbon resources have met most of the UK’s power needs.

Renewable energy — comprising wind, solar, hydro and biomass — accounted for just over 29 per cent of electricity generation last year, up from a quarter in 2016, with a further 21 per cent coming from nuclear power, according to Carbon Brief, a website that monitors climate change and energy policy.

Coal’s share of the electricity mix fell by a quarter to less than 7 per cent, with gas also down at just under 40 per cent, according to Carbon Brief.

The figures represent a landmark in decarbonisation of the UK power sector after rapid growth in wind and solar generation.

Wind generated twice as much electricity as coal in 2017, while solar exceeded coal on 182 days, or almost half the year, according to analysis of data compiled by Imperial College London.

UK energy chart

The UK has driven coal out of its energy system faster than most other developed economies, in pursuit of a government target for all coal-fired power generation to end by 2025. The first full day since the industrial revolution in which the UK did not produce any electricity from burning coal came last April.

The phasing-out of coal has been the main factor behind a 42 per cent fall in UK carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 — the biggest drop among the G7 leading economies. That has reduced UK carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest level since the 1920s.

However, Simon Evans, an analyst at Carbon Brief, said there was still a long way to go if the UK was to meet its legally mandated target to cut emissions by 57 per cent from 1990 levels by 2032. Low-carbon energy would need to reach roughly three-quarters of UK power generation for the goal to be achieved, he said, and much more progress would be needed in decarbonising transport and heating.

“Eighty per cent of UK emissions reduction in the past five years has come from burning less coal,” said Mr Evans. “That puts into perspective how little progress has been made in other parts of the economy.”

Last year, the government announced a plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 as part of efforts to encourage uptake of cleaner electric vehicles. But critics say there is still no coherent strategy for reducing emissions from the gas boilers that heat most British homes.

Advocates for nuclear power will point to its one-fifth share of the UK electricity mix as evidence of its importance to decarbonisation — especially in contrast to Germany, which still depends on coal for about 40 per cent of electricity. However, Mr Evans said the “jury was out” on whether nuclear power could remain competitive against the falling cost of renewables.

Jonathan Marshall, an analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a research group, said the latest data proved the UK could rely on intermittent renewable energy for a large proportion of its electricity without destabilising the power grid.

He argued that rising wind and solar capacity was benefiting consumers by pushing down wholesale electricity costs.

However, sceptics of renewable power say overall costs are being pushed up by “green” subsidies and the need for back-up generation, such as gas-fired plants, to be available when renewable output is low.

Advocates for renewable power are counting on battery-storage technology providing a long-term solution to the unreliability of wind and solar, but critics argue that some combination of gas and nuclear will still be needed to ensure energy security.

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