UK fossil fuel usage reaches 66-year low as renewables rise

A profound shift away from UK fossil fuel usage marked a watershed moment in the nation’s energy history. The reduction in reliance on traditional energy sources was not merely a blip but signified a profound and sustained change, shaping the future of energy production and environmental impact.

Throughout the year, the UK saw a staggering 22% year-on-year decline in electricity generation from fossil fuels, reaching the lowest level recorded since 1957.

The 104 terawatt hours (TWh) generated from fossil fuels in 2023 represented a 66-year low, reflecting a seismic two-thirds drop from its peak in 2008.

This substantial decline in fossil fuel usage was propelled by a twofold force: a monumental surge in renewable energy, which expanded sixfold since 2008, generating around 113TWh, and a significant decrease in electricity demand by 21% since 2008, accounting for approximately 83TWh.

UK fossil fuel usage reaches all-time low

Consequently, the proportion of electricity sourced from fossil fuels hit an all-time low in 2023, constituting just 33% of the UK’s electricity supplies.

Gas comprised 31%, coal slightly over 1%, and oil just below 1%. Conversely, low-carbon sources claimed a substantial share, composing 56% of the total electricity generation.

Among these, renewables accounted for 43%, predominantly propelled by wind, solar, and bioenergy, while nuclear power contributed 13%.

The remaining portion, approximately 10%, included imports (7%) and other sources (3%), such as waste incineration.

The remarkable decline in UK fossil fuel usage was further paralleled by the evolution of the UK’s electricity demand.

Historically, electricity demand grew in tandem with the expanding economy. However, this trajectory experienced a noteworthy shift in the early 2000s, wherein economic growth ceased to be inextricably linked with electricity consumption.

By 2023, demand had sharply dropped from 396TWh in 2008 to 313TWh, reflecting an 83TWh reduction, equivalent to more than three times the expected output of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, currently under construction in Somerset.

The rise of renewables

This drop in demand is attributed to a confluence of factors, including adopting more energy-efficient appliances and lighting, elevated prices stemming from costly gas, and transforming the UK’s economic structure towards a service-oriented economy.

Concurrently, the surge in renewable energy capacity, particularly from wind, solar, and bioenergy, has played a pivotal role in reshaping the UK’s energy landscape.

Renewable electricity output scaled significantly, rising from 23TWh in 2008 to 135TWh in 2023. This substantial growth in renewables, coupled with reduced electricity demand, exerted immense pressure on UK fossil fuel usage, precipitating its decline to levels not witnessed since the mid-20th century.

© shutterstock/Dancing_Man

The remarkable ascent of renewables, however, saw a plateau in 2023. Despite continued increments in wind and solar capacity, renewable output remained at 135TWh, mirroring the record established in 2022.

Wind energy contributed 82TWh, with a modest 2% increase year-on-year, while bioenergy witnessed a decrease of 13% to 35TWh from 2021 levels. Solar energy experienced a marginal 2% rise, yielding 14TWh, while hydroelectricity fell by 9% to 5TWh.

The decline of coal and gas

As a result, coal usage in the UK electricity system dwindled drastically from 119TWh in 2008 to a mere 4TWh in 2023, marking a staggering 97% reduction. Gas, another significant traditional energy source, plummeted from 178TWh in 2008 to 98TWh in 2023, representing a 45% decline.

Even nuclear power, though historically a stalwart in the energy mix, experienced a decline to 41TWh in 2023, a 15% reduction year-on-year.

This precipitous decline in coal and gas usage, alongside the declining reliance on nuclear power, marked a significant departure from historical trends.

© shutterstock/Bilanol

The closure of multiple coal-fired power stations, including Drax in Yorkshire and West Burton in Nottinghamshire, underscored this shift, leaving only one operational coal-fired station, Ratcliffe in Nottinghamshire, slated to close by September 2024 in alignment with the government’s plan to end coal power by October 2024.

Moreover, the UK’s electricity mix registered its lowest-ever carbon intensity in 2023, measuring 162gCO2/kWh, reflecting an 18% year-on-year reduction.

Is the UK on track to achieve energy goals?

The government’s ambition to achieve 95% low-carbon electricity by 2030 and complete decarbonisation by 2035 presents an ambitious yet formidable challenge.

Although significant progress has been made, with the fastest rate of low-carbon electricity increase recorded between 2010 (23%) and 2017 (48%), attaining these goals necessitates sustained and accelerated efforts in expanding renewable energy infrastructure, fostering energy efficiency, and innovating to overcome potential hurdles in demand and technology adoption.

The interplay of renewable energy expansion, declining UK fossil fuel usage, and shifts in energy demand marks a pivotal juncture in the country’s energy transition. The journey towards a predominantly low-carbon electricity system embodies a transformation in energy sourcing and a commitment towards a sustainable and environmentally conscious future.

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