The UK’s renewable energy sector is quietly booming and much of the gains are being driven by a single technology — solar panels.
Back in 2006 only 4.6% of the UK’s electricity was generated from renewable sources. That compared unfavourably to a European average of 14%.
With countries in the European Union setting a target of 20% of energy consumption coming from renewable sources by 2020 (although the UK government is targeting a more modest 15% share) it looked like the UK was lagging some way behind. But a report released by the UK government shows that the prospects for the sector are quickly improving.
Firstly, the UK’s embarrassingly low share of renewable energy is showing signs of significant improvement. Renewables’ share of electricity generation increased from 13.6% in 2013 Q3 to 17.8% in 2014 Q3. To put that into context, the figure was below 8% in the first quarter of 2011.
A big part of the gains in recent years have come from two sources in particular — bio-energy and solar.
Output from bioenergy has surged by 31% since 2013, predominantly due to the conversion of two of Drax power station’s six generation units from burning coal to sustainable wood pellets. Conversion of a third unit is planned in the near future.
However, the stand-out story of the past few years has been the rise and rise of solar. As the report states:
“Solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity was the largest contributor to the increase on a year earlier, increasing by 1.9 gigawatts [equal to one billion watts], with the majority of this coming from large-scale schemes.”
While those figures are encouraging, there is still a great deal of potential yet to be exploited. An analysis undertaken by the government in 2012 suggested that by 2020 solar panels could potentially produce as much as 20 gigawatts of electricity — an amount that would almost double the total current output from the sector.
Although that represents the maximum potential it nevertheless is indicative of the possibilities that are opening up from developments in solar. In particular, technological advances have made solar panels much more efficient than ever before. This has meant that over the past decade the cost of solar energy has plummeted by over 50%.
Falling oil prices may take concerns about the cost of relying on fossil fuels off the political agenda for the time being, but the need for cheaper, renewable energy to meet future demand is a story that will not go away for long. The data shows that the prospects for achieving it are looking much more promising.
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