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The UK’s renewable electricity overtook its fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020 and could remain the largest source of electricity in the future, according to an independent climate thinktank.

The thinktank behind the report, Ember, discovered that renewable energy generated by wind, water, sunlight and wood made up 42% of the UK’s electricity last year compared with 41% generated from gas and coal plants together.

Even though renewable energy has overtaken fossil fuels during the summer months before, 2020 was the first time that renewables was the main source of the UK’s electricity over a year.

Coal experienced an even worse decline. According to Ember’s data, it accounted for just 2% of electricity generation in 2020, down from 23% in 2015.

We already knew that several coal-free generation records were broken during 2020, leading to the National Grid ESO dubbing the year the “greenest ever”. In total, Britain was powered coal-free for more than 5,147 hours during 2020, up from 3,666 hours in 2019. The longest consecutive coal-free streak lasted for two months and fell during the second quarter of 2020. The UK is notably mandating that all coal-fired electricity plants close by 2024.

Nuclear also saw its share of electricity generation fall in 2020. Ember claims the year-on-year decrease was 9%, which is largely due to maintenance outages. Whereas the report found that solar and hydro power generated 4% and 2% of the UK’s electricity respectively last year, which was unchanged compared with the year before.

The trend towards renewable energy power accelerated in 2020 following a sudden drop in demand for energy from the national grid as shops, offices and restaurants closed during the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the report said. Renewable energy, the cheapest source of electricity in the UK, was able to claim a larger share of the electricity mix as the electricity system operator left gas plants idle and called on nuclear reactors to lower their output to stop the grid from being overwhelmed with more electricity than the UK required.

The thinktank predicted that renewable electricity will maintain its lead in the UK’s electricity system in the years ahead, even after normal demand levels return, as new wind and solar farms are built across the country.

A Europe-Wide Development 

Earlier this week, Ember published a separate study in conjunction with Agora Energiewende, analysing the EU’s electricity generation mix during 2020.

The headline finding was that renewables generated 38% of the EU’s electricity last year as the share of fossil fuels in the generation mix fell to 37%. Nuclear power accounted for the bulk of the remaining 25%.

Like the UK, the EU is targeting net-zero by 2050. MEPs and regulators are in the process of developing specific targets for the energy sector, with debates this week covering new rules for financial taxonomies and the need to transition from fossil-based to green hydrogen.

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