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Energy Sources in the UK: Everything you Need to Know in 2023

In this article we’ll explore the UK’s energy mix and how this is expected to change in the future to help the UK meet its net zero targets.
Green News
2023-08-17T00:00:00.000Z
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Energy is what keeps our homes running - it provides the electricity to switch on the lights at night and power to heat up our water when we want to take a shower. But not many people know the sources of this energy, nor how the energy mix in the UK is changing in line with the UK’s ambition to decarbonise its energy network. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore the UK’s energy mix and how this is expected to change in the future to help the UK meet its net zero targets. 

First up, what do we actually mean by energy sources?

Energy sources are forms of potential energy which can be obtained to provide electricity, and thereby heat, light and power for our homes. We’d all be burning candles and cooking over fires without it! 

⚠️ Hold up, what does potential energy mean? Well, there are two types of energy: the first is kinetic energy, which is the energy of motion - every moving object and particle has kinetic energy. The second type of energy is what’s known as potential energy, this is energy that is stored, for example a spring has potential energy when it is compressed. 

In the UK we use many different sources of energy and technologies to generate electricity. The different sources are beginning to change, but we’ll get into that later.

First up, let's take a look at the UK’s energy mix in 2022.

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The UK’s energy mix

The National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO), is a legally independent business within the National grid group, and is the electricity system operator for the UK. It ensures that enough energy is supplied to different sectors of the grid to keep homes and businesses supplied with the energy they need 24/7.

According to the ESO’s analysis from 2022, the energy mix for the UK is made up as follows: 

  • Gas - 38.5%
  • Wind - 26.8%
  • Nuclear - 15.5%
  • Biomass - 5.2%
  • Coal - 1.5%
  • Solar - 4.4%
  • Imports - 5.5%
  • Hydro - 1.8% 
  • Energy storage - 0.9%
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UK energy source breakdown

As you can see, in the UK we generate our electricity in a number of different ways. This is important because it means that we never become too reliant on one particular source.

This way, the UK can ensure that there’s a constant supply of electricity. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of electricity sources outlined above.

Gas

Natural gas is currently the number one source of energy in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s a fossil fuel, which is very damaging for the environment and a big emitter of CO2.

👉 Not only this, but because the UK imports around 50% of its gas supply, it has faced a number of recent challenges with regards to cost and supply.

Several factors, such as an increased demand for gas in Asia, combined with diminished supplies from Russia on account of the war in Ukraine, have left UK consumers facing ever increasing gas bills. 

Wind

Wind power increasingly forms a bigger part of the UK’s energy supply, and year on year, records are broken in this regard. What’s interesting though is that the UK Government favours offshore wind over onshore facilities. 

Under the Tory Government in 2016 onshore wind subsidies were cut in a move to rid the British countryside of what some considered to be ‘unsightly’ structures. Although this policy has been walked back a bit, there are still planning restrictions that make development difficult. Since onshore wind is the cheapest and fastest method for scaling up renewable energy, many wonder why the UK Government isn’t doing more to support it. 

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Nuclear

The UK’s nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their operational lives, with all but one power station due to close by 2035.

👉 Lack of investment in the early 2000s and 2010s meant that no new nuclear reactors were developed in the UK. There was a lack of political incentive on account of the fact that nuclear power stations are incredibly expensive to develop, technically challenging, politically controversial and with long timelines for build and to get them up and running.

As a result the UK’s current facilities are in bad shape and are in dire need of replacement.  The UK Government is only just waking up to the potential of nuclear energy and we can expect to see a refocus on this energy source. 

Biomass

Biomass energy is the second largest source of renewable energy in the UK, and yet many people haven’t actually even heard of it. So what is biomass energy? 

👉 Biomass is a renewable energy source, generated from burning wood, plants and organic matter. Although it releases carbon dioxide when burned, this is significantly less than the emission produced from the burning of fossil fuels. The UK currently relies on wood pellet imports to fuel its biomass power stations, but may look to grow bioenergy crops domestically. 

The benefit of biomass energy is that it is not weather dependent like solar panels or wind turbines, making it a constant and reliable source of energy. 

Coal

Energy supplied by coal is incredibly polluting - it’s easily one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity. Burning this fossil fuel releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and pollutants into the environment, not only contributing to climate change but also damaging people’s health in the process. 

In the UK, during the first half of the twentieth century, coal was the primary means of producing power. Now, we are aware of the huge damage it does to the environment and so levels of usage are significantly less. 

coal

Solar

Despite the UK’s infamous bad weather, it’s actually one of the top ten countries for generating electricity using solar panels!

👉 In the UK, there are about 470 solar farms and almost a million houses across the UK with solar panel installations, which equates to about 3.3% of UK homes generating electricity from solar power. 

The UK Government plans to increase the supply of solar energy as part of its plans to decarbonise its energy sector. 

Hydro 

The vast majority of the UK’s hydro power comes from the mountainous regions of Scotland and Wales. This kind of power is energy that comes from flowing water - either rivers or man-made installations.Turbines placed within the flow of the water extract the renewable source of energy. 

👉 However, many of the UK’s current sites were built in the 50s and 60s and recent proposals for new sites have been hampered by environmental concerns. Many of these mountainous sites, suitable for hydro power generation lie in protected areas, making development difficult. 

Imports and energy storage in the UK

Imports

The UK electricity network is connected to networks in France, the Netherlands and Ireland via interconnector cables. This is used as a way to import and export electricity.

👉 In the past the UK has tended to export to Ireland, but import from France and the Netherlands to meet energy demands.

Storage

Energy storage facilities are essential if the UK wants to move away from its reliance on fossil fuels, as it helps to fill in any energy supply gaps that may result from weather-dependent technologies like wind and solar. Not only this, but it can absorb excess power when the demand in the UK is low, saving it for later use. 

The UK is investing in this area, and in fact, Europe’s largest battery storage system went live in the UK in 2022. Storage systems will play a major role in the transition to net zero, ensuring energy security for the UK and reducing reliance on imports from countries such as Russia.

The future of renewables

According to Imperial College London, a record amount of energy from renewable sources was generated in the UK in 2022. They found that 40% (up 5% vs 2021) of the UK’s energy was made up of solar, wind, biomass and hydropower. 

Clean power generation is crucial to the UK Government’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, and in recent years they’ve set steep renewable energy targets. In fact, the government wants to decarbonise the entirety of the UK’s power system by 2035.

But how feasible is it that the UK can deliver on this target?

According to the Climate Change Committee (CCC) -  an independent body who advises the government on emissions targets and reports to parliament on progress made in reducing emissions - a massive ramp up of renewable energy sources will be required to meet the UK’s electricity demand (most likely onshore and offshore wind, and solar), backed up by battery storage capacity.  

👉 If the UK is going to achieve this, significant investment into infrastructure will be necessary, with some estimates putting the figure as high as £200 billion. According to the CCC, investment will need to reach £50 billion a year by 2030. 

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The UK Energy Security Strategy

Published in April 2022, the British Energy Security Strategy lays out how the UK plans to speed up its energy transition in order to improve the UK’s energy security and develop greater energy independence.

The strategy details how large capacity increases in its nuclear energy supply, renewables and hydrogen will help to achieve these goals. These targets will result in a significant shift in the UK’s energy supply in coming years. 

What exactly are these targets?

  • The UK Government plans to significantly increase the UK’s wind energy capacity. The current capacity of the UK is 11GW (gigawatts), but the UK Government plans to increase this to 50GW. 
  • In addition to increasing wind energy capacity, the UK will also increase its solar energy capacity. The current capacity of the UK is 14GW, but the UK Government wants to increase significantly to 70GW by as early as 2035.
  • With regards to the UK’s hydrogen supply, the Energy Security Strategy commits the UK to a doubling of its current hydrogen production. The new target is 10 GW by 2030.
  • Alongside these increases in renewable energy outputs, the UK Government also recognises that it will need to expand its energy network to integrate renewable technologies into existing infrastructure. It’s taking steps to realise this, and a Future Systems Operator will be operational by 2024. The FSO will be responsible for energy resilience and integration. 

What about nuclear power?

The UK Government, in its Energy Security Strategy places huge weight on the future of nuclear energy and aims to triple the UK’s output by 2050, with the intention that nuclear power will supply 25% of the UK’s energy mix.

👉 The UK Government is currently in the process of developing a new nuclear facility in England and intends to consider opening other such facilities across the UK.

However, nuclear power plants are expensive and take years to build. Not only this, but they face opposition from the public, who often favour clean sources of energy such as wind and solar. 

The UK faces the additional challenge of the fact that most of its current nuclear reactors are scheduled for retirement. The current reactors in the UK supply approximately 15.5% of the UK’s current power demand, but more than half of this is due to come offline by the end of 2024.

In the future

Is the 2035 target reachable?

From a technology perspective the 2035 target (to decarbonise the UK's power system) is achievable, but the UK Government will need to facilitate policy to support delivery. Issues such as slow planning consent, supply chain concerns and insufficient infrastructure create a big challenge for the UK Government.

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Looking ahead

If the UK Government is to meet its 2050 target of net zero emission (compared to 1990s levels), then it’s going to have to address the energy mix in the UK, which is currently too reliant on fossil fuels.

Current trends are pushing the UK in the right direction - the fact that almost 40% of the UK’s energy came from renewables is promising - but it will need to push investment into clean energy technologies if it wants to end its reliance on expensive, imported fossil fuels. Something that will not only lower the UK’s carbon emissions, but also strengthen the UK’s energy security. 

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If you’d like to learn more about a specific industry, Greenly can help by providing an in-depth industry study, created by our climate scientists.

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