The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in the UK’s energy supply. In 2010, almost three quarters of Britain’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels. But in the third quarter of 2019, renewables outpaced coal, oil and gas for the first time since Britain’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882.
As Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK has observed, the transformation of the UK’s electricity supply has been extraordinary:
“We’re in the middle of basically an industrial revolution. If you look back 10 years ago when we thought about renewables, we only thought about them as this kind of niche climate change technology and now they’re the backbone of the energy system.”
More megawatts: the growth of wind power
Increases in turbine capacity, hub height and rotor diameter, and sharp reductions in the costs of constructing and operating wind power facilities have helped to grow the UK’s wind power sector. The current generation of offshore turbines are taller than the London Eye (195m), generating 8-9 megawatts of power. But wind power operators are already planning 300m turbines, with a capacity to generate between 10-15 megawatts. Another innovation has been the development of floating turbines, which can be placed in deeper waters where the wind is stronger and less variable. The world’s first floating wind farm was opened off the coast of Scotland in 2017.
Offshore wind: “a major game changer”
An additional factor driving the growth of wind power is government support. The UK government has provided competitive subsidies to the offshore wind sector, with further help pledged in the 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal
The UK is now the world’s biggest offshore wind market. In the past two years, supersize wind farms have opened off the coasts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Caithness. Another wind farm will become operational in 2020, while work has already started on what will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capable of powering 4.5 million homes.
While the UK, along with Germany and Denmark, has been leading the development of offshore wind power, other countries are catching up fast. In 2018, China installed more new offshore wind power schemes than any country in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) offshore wind provides just 0.3% of global power generation. But by 2040 wind could be the single biggest source of power generation in Europe. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA is in no doubt about the future of onshore wind power, telling the Financial Times last year: “It has the potential to be a major game-changer.”
Onshore wind: a sector becalmed
For onshore wind it’s a different story. In April 2016, the UK government ended new subsidies for onshore wind schemes, pointing to growing public opposition. In addition, changes to planning regulations have made it harder to develop new onshore wind schemes. As a result, new capacity in onshore wind has slowed markedly.
The UK onshore wind sector has argued strongly in favour of lifting the ban on subsidies, pointing to the economic benefits of onshore wind and its capacity to replace lost resources. In January 2019, when Hitachi abandoned plans to build a nuclear plant in Wales, the onshore wind industry highlighted 794 projects that have won planning consent and are ready to build. Industry representatives claim that together these projects would generate two thirds of what the Hitachi plant would have produced.
While onshore development in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has lost pace, continuing support from the Scottish Government for onshore wind power means there is a current pipeline of 26 projects in Scotland.
Skills and jobs
In 2019, the UK adopted a net zero carbon emission target, bringing all greenhouse gas emissions — excluding aviation and international shipping — to virtually zero by 2050. Achieving this will require profound changes, not least in terms of power generation. This in turn means recruiting the right people with the right skills.
Last month, a report published by the National Grid forecast that the UK’s energy sector will need to recruit several hundred thousand workers in order to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. The report found that in the north west of England alone, over 60,000 jobs will need to be filled to meet the demands of offshore wind expansion, while the continued growth of on-shore and offshore wind power in Scotland will drive the need for almost 50,000 jobs by 2050.
Wind power is not without its critics. Some commentators have expressed doubts about its contribution to world energy supply, and warned of its environmental impacts. But it seems that a critical turning point has been reached. Wind now accounts for 20% of UK electricity generation, making it the country’s strongest source of renewable energy.
The trend is set to continue, certainly regarding offshore wind power. And even onshore wind schemes may be set for a comeback, with signs that public support for this cheap and clean form of electricity generation has never been greater.