In 2020, the combined renewable output for energy production in Britain beat that of its fossil fuel counterpart. The latest Insight report from Drax has revealed that wind and solar alone produced 30% of Britain’s energy usage (over 100TWh of electricity). This figure stood at around 25.7% in 2019 which means there has been a supply increase of a sixth. The graph below shows how the percentage share of wind and solar generation is predicted to change over the next 20 years. The graph shows that wind and solar are predicted to provide up to approximately 85% of Britain’s energy requirement by 2040.
Figure 1: Share of electricity generation from wind and solar power.
Further records were smashed in 2020, mostly due to the pandemic, where a 6% drop in total energy demand was recorded. This is the largest ever recorded within the national grid’s 100-year history.
An additional 9% of Britain’s energy was produced by hydro and biomass which meant, in total, renewable sources counted for 39% of all energy consumed. Indeed 2020 saw renewable energy sources supply more electricity than its fossil fuel counterpart for over 200 days! The first time renewable supply surpassed fossil fuel supply was back in 2015.
Drop in Consumption, Rise in Curtailment
Renewables supplied more than 30% of Britain’s electricity demand through 2020 but that also meant more energy had to be discarded due to network congestion. Curtailment almost doubled from 2019, at a cost of over a quarter of a billion pounds. Curtailment is the action of reducing or restricting output, in this instance in the form of exporting electrical energy to the national grid.
Throughout 2020, Britain’s wind farms produced over 69TWh of electricity including hitting an instantaneous peak of over 17.4 GW, however this could have been much more if it were not for the need for curtailment. In total, 6% of Britain’s wind output had to be curtailed which meant that 3.8 TWh of electricity was lost over the year, enough to power every home in Wales.
2020 was also a great year for solar generation, breaking a number of records including peak generation hitting a high in April of 9.68GW.
However even though all the energy production figures look good, fossil fuel power stations still made 25% more than wind and solar farms per unit of output, and this gap has quadrupled in the last two years. The suppressed demand during the pandemic and high renewable generation also saw electricity prices fall to their lowest in 15 years.
What’s Next for Renewables
2020 was a great year for renewables with increased generation and increased usage of energy from renewable sources – Covid was of course partly a reason for the relative increase over fossil fuel usage. However, the issues associated with having energy sources that only produces when the sun shines and when the wind blows remains a technical issue which is yet to be completely overcome. Many of the Britain’s wind developments have existed prior to suitable battery storage and newer developments, where battery storage is viable, are not coming forward at the same rate at which they were. The solution will likely involve battery/energy storage and this will have to be implemented through retrofitting older wind farms or re-powering wind farms as they come to the latter stages of their life cycles with energy storage solutions and newer turbines. Without battery storage, or energy storage by some other means e.g. hydrogen, there will always be a reliance on energy sources that can produce energy on demand e.g. fossil fuels and nuclear.
The other side of the issue is that of curtailment, where energy is ready to be distributed yet it is not needed due to low demand at that time. This again leads back to the battery storage requirement. Curtailment of any energy source essentially means that both energy and money is wasted. We know battery storage is coming, there are many examples of it being put into practice and we are receiving more and more inquiries where battery storage is to be implemented. Hopefully this will become more and more frequent in the coming years which will lessen the requirement for fossil fuels to be on stand by and reduce the need for curtailment.
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Drax: Electric Insights Quarterly Reports, Q4 2020. Last accessed 16.02.21.
This curtailed energy could have powered around 1.25 million homes (assuming the UK average of 3,000 kWh per year), or around 3 million people. The population of Wales is estimated at around 3.2 million.