Wind power dominates UK as top electricity source for first time in history

Rishi Sunak says ‘no’ to onshore wind turbines in August

Wind power is now officially the UK’s electricity source of choice, as turbines generated the largest share of the total for the first time during the opening months of 2023.

The milestone marks the first quarter in over seven years that gas didn’t occupy the top spot. Wind farms met 32.4 percent of demand between January and March, ahead of gas on 31.7 percent, according to renewable energy firm Drax.

This is but the latest in a string of achievements as the country heads towards carbon neutrality.

The latest Energy Trends report shows the share of renewables in the country’s energy mix grew by almost a fifth last year – the vast majority of which came from added wind capacity.

The 24 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity produced by British wind in the first quarter – enough to run roughly five million homes – puts the sector in good stead to smash the record 74TWh generated throughout 2022.

Less than a decade ago, coal was the UK’s number one fuel. Its eventual decline was matched only by the meteoric rise of natural gas.

Producing just 0.1 percent of total demand in 1990, gas-fired power plants overtook coal in late 2014 and had gone unchallenged ever since. At the same time, the amount of wind power generated doubled in a decade.

Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London, lead author of the quarterly Drax Electric Insights report series, said: “The renewable power revolution has transformed how Britain gets its electricity, making our power grid cleaner and greener. In the space of a decade the UK has almost completely cut out coal, after relying on the most polluting fossil fuel for over a century to power our country.

“There are still many hurdles to reaching a completely fossil fuel-free grid, but wind out-supplying gas for the first time is a genuine milestone event, and shows what can be achieved when governments create a good environment for investors in clean technology.”

The past year saw the sector switch into high gear. Total capacity was up 14 percent in the first quarter of 2023 relative to the previous year. As a result, despite less windy weather, production was up three percent.

According to the National Grid, the UK’s “exposed position in the north-east Atlantic makes it one of the best locations in the world for wind power,” with the “shallow waters of the North Sea” an area ripe for hosting wind farms.

Over 350 offshore turbines came online in 2022, adding enough to power an extra 3.4 million UK homes. These were mainly concentrated across three mammoth new sites.

Operated by Danish energy multinational Orsted, the 165-turbine Hornsea Two farm, 55 miles off the coast of Yorkshire, is the biggest in the world.

The new Moray East site in Scotland has 100 turbines, while Triton Knoll in the North Sea has 90 up and running.

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RenewableUK’s Executive Director of Policy Ana Musat said “We’ve now passed a very significant tipping point as wind is taking over from gas as our main power source in the UK.

“This is great news for billpayers as wind is our cheapest source of electricity, as well as playing a vital role in cutting energy imports from abroad, strengthening Britain’s energy security.

According to the latest projections by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), by 2025 offshore wind is predicted to cost £57 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced, relative to £85/MWh to run a gas turbine.

Ms Musat added: “Wind is becoming the backbone of our modern clean energy system and this is set to grow fast as the Government wants us to quadruple our world-class offshore wind capacity over the course of this decade, attracting billions in private investment and creating tens of thousands of high-quality green jobs”.

Back in 2021, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Government unveiled plans to completely decarbonise the UK’s energy grid by 2035. Progress is being made – renewables making up 41.4 percent of the mix in 2022, 1.8 points more than the year before – but there is still a long way to go.

Onshore wind, for one, still faces significant hurdles. Following through on a manifesto commitment, back in 2015 David Cameron’s Government changed the law to enable a single opponent to block the construction of a wind farm. Just two were built in England last year.

As part of a consultation launched on Thursday, the current Government is proposing to offer a range of benefits to communities that agree to host onshore turbines, including discounts on their energy bills.

Minister of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Graham Stuart said: “Onshore wind is a vital part of our plans to deliver cheaper, cleaner, and more secure homegrown energy. Our proposals will ensure developers and local residents can work together more efficiently to maximise community benefits for supportive communities while delivering the clean and secure energy the country needs.”

Unlocking onshore wind capacity is crucial if the UK is to compete for international investment in the sector, especially since US president Joe Biden’s administration announced $216billion (£178billion) in tax breaks for green energy firms under the Inflation Reduction Act.

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