Renewable electricity in the UK has had a great year, but with our homes and transport still almost totally reliant on carbon the hardest part of the zero-carbon future is still ahead
It’s been a bad year for fossil fuels in the UK. In May, Great Britain went two weeks without burning any coal for electricity – the longest stretch of coal-free electricity since the first coal-fired power station came online in 1882. In late June the National Grid confidently predicted that in 2019, fossil fuels would make up less than half of the total electricity mix for the first time ever.
Fossil fuel, it seems, is entering its twilight years. In 2009, 75 per cent of Great Britain’s electricity was produced by burning coal or gas. In the first five five months of 2019, that portion fell to just 44 per cent. In the same time period, wind has soared from providing one per cent of total electricity to just under a fifth.
But the decline of high-carbon energy might not be as imminent as the headline make things seem. In the UK, heating is still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuel. And on the electricity front, the UK is due to lose seven of its eight nuclear power plants in the next decade, leaving an energy production gap against the backdrop of increasing electricity demand from the rise of electric vehicles.
So are fossil fuels really on the way out in the UK? Not quite yet. While electricity production has been shifting fairly speedily towards renewables, heating – which makes up 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption – has been lagging way behind, says Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute. Some 85 per cent of UK households are still heated using fossil-fuel based natural gas. Cleaning up in-home heating would require switching to heat pumps, which run on electricity and draw warmth from the environment to heat homes, or burning biowaste.
But heat pumps are only useful if homes are so well insulated that they only require a small amount of heating. And the UK isn’t doing well on that front either. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK’s 29 million existing homes aren’t being insulated fast enough to save on needless carbon emissions.
Read more: Wired