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Renewable power overtakes fossil fuels for first time in UK in 2020 – report

Gareth Fuller

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Renewables overtook fossil fuels to be the biggest source of electricity in the UK for the first time in 2020, a report shows.

Wind, solar, bioenergy and hydropower generated a record 42% of UK power last year, while fossil fuels – mostly gas – produced 41%, analysis from think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende found.

In 2019, renewables generated 37% of the UK’s electricity compared with 45% for fossil fuels.

Renewables also overtook fossil fuels as the main source of electricity for the European Union in 2020, with Germany and Spain reaching the same tipping point.

In the UK, the share of power from wind turbines continues to increase, making up nearly a quarter (24%) of generation in 2020, double the share it had just five years ago and up from 20% in 2019.

Coal power, which is due to be phased out by as early as 2024, accounted for just 2% of electricity production in 2020, while gas fell from 41% of generation in 2019 to 37% in 2020, the analysis shows.

It is a massive transformation of the UK’s power system, which only a decade ago generated more than three-quarters of its power from fossil fuels, mostly gas and coal, and just a small fraction – 7% in 2010 – from renewables.

Charles Moore, Ember’s European programme lead, said: “With Boris Johnson’s 40-gigawatt 2030 offshore wind target, gas generation is set for further rapid declines over the 2020s.

“It is clear the UK has started its journey towards gas power phase-out in 2035 as recommended by the Climate Change Committee.”

The committee, the UK’s independent climate adviser, has said there needs to be a phase-out of gas power plants which do not have technology to capture their carbon emissions by 2035 as part of efforts to tackle climate change.

Solar power, which generates 4% of UK electricity, has barely grown since 2018, which the analysts said reflects a lack of supportive policies for installing the technology, while nuclear accounted for less than a fifth (17%).

Bioenergy generated 12% of the UK’s electricity in 2020, rising slightly since 2019, which the analysts said raises concerns over relying on biomass such as burning wood from forests to replace coal, which may not deliver the same benefits for the climate as other renewables.

The switchover between fossil fuels and renewables came as demand fell significantly last year in the face of the pandemic lockdowns, which took place on the back of longer term declines in electricity use.

Electricity demand is set to increase again as more cars on the road become electric vehicles and homes switch from gas boilers to low-carbon heat pumps for heating and hot water which are powered by electricity.

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