Though renewable energy generation grew 9% last year, low-carbon electricity actually slowed overall in 2019 because of a string of outages at the UK’s ageing nuclear power plants. With experts warning that growth will need to double in the 2020s to meet UK climate targets, we look at what consumers can do to help speed up the country's low-carbon transition. 

Renewable energy in the UK generated more power than fossil fuel plants on a record 137 days in 2019 to help the country’s energy system experience its greenest ever year. 

A new report by Carbon Brief found that energy from renewables – made up by wind, solar, hydro and biomass projects – grew by 9% last year and was the UK’s largest electricity source in March, August, September and December.

The rise of renewables helped drive generation from coal and gas plants down by 6% from the year before, and 50% lower from the start of the decade.

Compared to 2017, when the UK recorded its first ever 24-hour coal-free period, the number of coal-free days increased to 21 days in 2018 and 83 days last year.

The report’s findings come after National Grid confirmed that “low-carbon” electricity – including energy from renewables and nuclear plants – made up more than half the UK’s energy mix for the first time last year.

However, it hasn’t all been positive news for Britain’s decarbonisation journey. Although the UK’s low-carbon electricity production doubled over the last 10 years, despite last year’s record, growth of low-carbon generation actually slowed in 2019 because of a string of outages at the UK’s ageing nuclear power plants.

Low-carbon electricity output from wind, solar, nuclear, hydro and biomass rose by just 1 terawatt hour (TWh, less than 1%) in 2019, representing the smallest annual increase in a decade (where annual growth averaged 9TWh).

According to Carbon Brief, this growth will need to double in the 2020s to meet UK climate targets while replacing old nuclear plants as they retire.

Audrey Gallacher, Energy UK’s interim chief executive, said the report was a “stark reminder” that the energy industry must go “much further and faster” to help meet the UK’s climate target. Britain has set a legally binding target to create a carbon-neutral economy by cutting emissions to net zero by 2050. The target will require a huge increase in low-carbon generation to help meet the UK’s rising need for clean electricity for transport and heating.

“The amount of low-carbon power produced has doubled over the last decade but we need to go above and beyond that to keep pace with our climate change targets, especially with overall demand set to increase, rather than falling as it has done in recent years,” Gallacher said. “This underlines the urgency of increasing all forms of low-carbon generation – and why we need to see [the government’s] energy white paper as soon as possible, with action and policies that can enable the required investment and innovation to make this happen.”

Three ways consumers can help accelerate Britain’s low-carbon transition

• Get a smart meter installed
To support the move to a low-carbon energy system, the widespread installation of smart meters and automatic meter reading (AMR) in domestic and commercial properties is essential. By being able to analyse the data from digitised meters, we are moving to a model where granular, near real-time data on energy demand increasingly allows for the integration of renewables, localised microgeneration and battery storage, and ultimately the establishment of a more decentralised energy network which is cleaner and more flexible.

As such, by simply getting a smart meter – whether or not you proactively use the data it provides to gain insight on your consumption and facilitate savings – you are able to contribute to the energy network's decarbonisation simply by having one installed. However, using your device and your consumption data wisely can be a means of much greater good, opening up a world of energy-saving possibilities.

• Be more energy efficient
According to research from the University of Salford and The Energy Saving Trust, if every household took energy efficiency measures now, we could achieve 11 per cent of the UK's 2050 carbon target. As impactful as that potentially is, domestic energy efficiency of course is just one part of the decarbonisation puzzle, and businesses and industry have a huge role to play through practicing better energy efficiency too. Indeed, a recent government study found there to be an estimated 40TWh of potential savings identified in the UK’s commercial and industrial buildings.

For home and small business energy users, simple measures and minor behavioural changes can make a huge difference. However, for larger organisations with complex site portfolios, achieving efficiency can be much more complex. Automatically monitoring your meter data with energy management software can make this task much simpler, bringing your organisation’s data together on one platform, providing a comprehensive visibility of consumption, helping you to establish patterns and set benchmarks. Working with professional energy consultants, meanwhile, can help you further rationalise your usage, and provide the expertise and resources to deliver energy projects that boost sustainability, reduce carbon and introduce flexibility.

• Make the case for low-carbon technologies
As the cost of investing in low-carbon technologies – such as microgeneration, battery storage and electric vehicles – falls, the possibility for consumers to produce their own energy and control when they use, store, and export it makes for an increasingly attractive proposition – further strengthening the hand of consumers to support the low-carbon transition whilst simultaneously providing the potential to profit from their energy usage.

Meanwhile, greater participation in demand-side response (whether through time-of-use tariffs for domestic energy users, or the National Grid’s central DSR mechanism for organisations) has the potential to be transformative, not just for consumers that will have an extra method to boost efficiency, cut carbon emissions, and provide extra revenue, but for the energy system as a whole.

SMS is today actively working with organisations to integrate low-carbon technology, from generation and storage, to charging and heat solutions, into their energy strategies. If you are a business looking to decarbonise, talk to one of our energy experts about our integrated metering, data and energy management solutions. Contact us on 02920 893 882 or leave your details and we'll call you back.