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Renewable Energy & The Grid

We take a look at the current share of renewable energy in the UK's electricity mix, predictions for the future, and how the grid works.

renewable energy the grid

2020 was a unique year on many levels. Covid related behaviour change sent ripples throughout many industries – including the energy sector, with the UK experiencing the greenest year on record.

Energy demand dropped to a level not seen since the 1950s, resulting in the National Grid ESO halting transmission from gas plants and asking nuclear reactors to lower output. Renewable & bioenergy overtook fossil fuels as the largest sources of UK electricity, with power generated from wind, sunlight, water and wood making up 42% of the UK’s electricity – compared with 41% coming from gas and coal plants together (source). 

Wind energy continued to make up the lion share of renewable energy – and accounted for nearly a quarter of UK electricity generation (24%) – an increase of 715% since 2009. The UK continues to lead the world when it comes to offshore wind, with more installed capacity than any other country. However, for it to dominate the UK’s energy mix we will need to find a way to store its energy to regulate supply. 

Solar and hydro power generated 4% and 2% of the UK’s electricity respectively – unchanged from 2019. 

However despite moving in a positive direction, UK renewable energy production is still too reliant on bioenergy (making up 12%), which poses higher environmental risks. 

In comparison, coal consumption fell to a record low, down 20% from 2019 to 2.3 million tonnes. 

With travel restrictions in place, transport fuel demand naturally decreased (most notably from air and road transport), dropping 29% from 2019 – taking demand back to levels seen back in the 1980s. 

Renewable Energy & The Grid


The future of energy generation

As the country recovered from the coronavirus crisis, energy demand began to normalise in 2021. However, with targets such as the 40GW 2030 offshore wind target, and 2035 gas power phase out, we will continue to see drastic changes in the UK’s energy mix at a pace unseen before. 

The National Grid’s 2020 Future Energy Scenarios report predicts a growth in UK renewable energy generation, with significant expansion in installed offshore wind capacity, a widespread uptake in electric vehicles, and growth and investment in hydrogen and carbon capture technologies.  

Looking into the energy sources of tomorrow globally, and what we may see by 2050, experts at Mer’s parent company Statkraft have produced a Low Emissions Scenario report, with predictions including:  

Solar power 

Solar power will become the world’s largest source of electricity, as early as 2035, with solar cells becoming cheaper and more advanced – capable of charging from both sides and following the movement of the sun. 

Wind power 

Wind power will become the second largest source of electricity. The prediction is that wind turbines will get bigger and be able to produce more energy at a lower cost.  

Hydro power 

Hydro power was the largest renewable source of electricity in 2021, and will become the third largest in 2050 – growing 1.5% per year up to 2050, overtaking coal and gas-generated electricity in 2040. 

A large benefit seen with hydropower is its flexibility and ability to continue to generate electricity during periods of low wind or sunshine. 

Green hydrogen 

Statkraft’s experts are predicting that the world’s oldest element – green hydrogen – will meet 6% of the world’s energy needs in 2050. 

It’s believed that hydrogen will be used where the supply of electricity is challenging, such as the steel industry and long-haul transport. 

Green hydrogen can be stored and can balance the power grid when there is a lot of sun and wind. 


National Grid ESO: moving towards a zero-carbon energy system in the UK

The National Grid recently set out their ambition to transform the operation of the UK’s electricity system by 2025, to allow it to operate safely and securely at zero carbon when there is sufficient renewable generation online and available to meet demand. 

The plan is to do so with the help of newer technologies such as large scale off-shore wind power, domestic scale solar panels and a greater ‘demand-side response’ with the help of smart tech systems, encouraging large energy users to adjust their peak time energy usage. ESO’s intention is to introduce new systems, products and services to support the zero-carbon network, reducing the cost of operating the system and in turn lowering costs for consumers. 


How does the National Grid work?

The vast majority of homes and businesses across the UK receive their energy from the National Grid – which is a network of high-voltage power lines, and storage facilities that enable the distribution of electricity. 

The energy distributed by the National Grid is generated from a mixture of renewable and fossil fuels sources. And it cannot be sorted, meaning that all customers powered by the grid receive an energy mixture.  

​​The National Grid is the UK’s Energy System Operator (ESO) and is able to balance supply and demand 24/7 and send power to homes and businesses via ‘Distribution Network Operators’ (DNOs). Energy suppliers act as a middle-man, buying up this energy, to sell it to consumers. 


Can you charge an EV with renewable energy?

Electric Vehicle chargers are fed by the grid. Even though the grid is composed of renewable and non-renewable energy, using a renewable energy supplier won’t directly change the energy mix but it will have a positive impact and has the power to create change. 

You are indirectly funding the production of renewable energy. Switching to a renewable energy supply helps increase demand for more electricity from renewable sources which is better for the planet. 


Can the grid cope with increased demand from EVs?

In short, yes. Despite concerns about its ability to cope with such pressures, efficiency improvements over the last decade mean energy demand is currently lower now than it has been in years – and it’s estimated that even if there was to be an overnight switch to EVs, the increase in overall demand would only be around 10%.  

It’s estimated there will be more than 11 million electric vehicles on Britain’s roads by 2030. But by 2050, up to 80% of drivers will be ‘smart charging’ their EV – taking advantage of off-peak rates and balancing the demand on the grid. It’s expected that 45% of households will help to balance the grid, ‘offering up to 38GW of flexible electricity to help manage peaks and fill troughs in demand.’ (source). 

The Grid transmission system is regularly upgraded and it’s believed that EV related upgrades will only be required for ultra-fast charging, mainly in locations such as motorways, where heavy-duty electrical systems already exist. 

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