Renewable energy sources generated more electricity in the UK than fossil fuel power plants for the first, straight three-month period since records began more than a century ago, according to research.
Wind farms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants generated an estimated 29.5 terawatt hours (TWhs) of electricity in the third quarter between July and September, just exceeding the 29.1 TWhs produced by plants that run on fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil.
The total TWhs produced during the third quarter — which also includes energy produced by nuclear power plants — is 73.9TWhs.
It is the first time fossil fuels have been outpaced for an entire quarter since the first public electricity-generating station — fuelled by coal — opened in central London in 1882, according to forecasts by Carbon Brief, a climate research and news website.
The third-quarter performance is likely to be heralded by environment groups as another significant moment in the UK’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050.
Britain, which was once heavily reliant on coal power, continues to decarbonise its electricity system and earlier this year notched up its longest period without burning coal, which ended at 18 days, six hours and 10 minutes on June 4.
National Grid, which is responsible for matching energy supply with demand in Britain, expects 2019 to be the first year when more electricity is generated from “zero carbon” sources than fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution. This would include power from nuclear plants, which are opposed by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace.
In the past decade the UK has decarbonised its electricity system at the fastest pace of 25 major economies through a combination of factors, including a carbon tax paid by fossil fuel plants and subsidy schemes to encourage renewables. All the while, demand has been falling as appliances become more efficient.
In 2015, the government set a target to stamp out coal power entirely by 2025 — only five are currently operational.
Dr Simon Evans of Carbon Brief said renewable generation has increased more than fourfold since 2010 and offshore wind capacity has had a “surge” in the past 12 months. Hornsea One, the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, located off the coast of Yorkshire, began operating in June.
Gas accounted for the biggest single source of electricity generation last year but Dr Evans said the further rise of renewables “means that gas generation is likely to continue falling”.
The UK government wants a third of electricity to be generated from offshore wind alone by 2030, although critics of UK energy policy question where power will come from on days when renewables aren’t generating because of weather conditions.