Over the Easter weekend, Great Britain recorded its greenest day for energy generation, breaking the previous record set in May 2020. On Easter Monday, zero-carbon power sources accounted for almost 80% of the country’s energy. This represented average carbon emissions of just 75 grams per kilowatt hour (CO2g/kWh), reaching the lowest ever recorded level of 39 CO2g/kWh at midday.
The record represents progress made in Great Britain’s move towards carbon-free energy production – great news for climate action campaigners who are due to celebrate and promote climate action via Earth Day on 22 April. However, the day’s energy mix demonstrates the necessary role that fossil fuel still plays in providing our energy and raises questions about how the country will move forward to produce less carbon-intensive energy in the future.
Looking at the country’s energy mix on Monday 4 April, the value that renewable energy sources, such as wind and increasingly biomass, are contributing is clear. Combined off- and onshore wind power contributed the largest portion of our energy that day at 39%. Solar was also a vital contributor, providing the next largest single portion of energy at 21%. While this shows a clear success in the UK’s move to renewables, regional disparities raise questions about the ability of the country as a whole to eliminate its use of fossil fuels, such as natural gas, on which it relies heavily. In Scotland, for example, Monday’s energy was almost entirely generated from wind but in England, a significant portion came from natural gas. While gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, the energy mix on a national level demonstrates how important fossil fuels still are in providing energy across the UK.
Whether the UK’s energy industry can diversify to remove the need for fossil fuels will be tested as other measures to reach net-zero emissions are introduced. As we begin to move further towards the UK government’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, electrification of previously fossil-fuel-dependent resources is likely to put an even greater strain on the national grid. An area that will have a significant impact is the move towards electric vehicles. The cumulative goals that have been set are that by 2032 at the latest, across all UK nations, all new light vehicles sold must be fully electric and all vehicles (including HGVs) should run on battery power by 2050. If these goals are achieved, or if a significant move towards success is made, a dramatic increase in demand will be placed on the national grid. This increased demand for electricity will not only increase the pressure on electricity resources but will also move a source of emissions from cars to power stations. To offset this, renewables need to remain the focus of energy generation and further investment in their use is needed to move away from our current dependency on fossil fuels.
The data collected on Easter Monday also point to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on energy demand. Over the course of the past year, energy consumption across the country has been notably below typical levels. Until the record was broken on Monday, the country’s previous greenest day was 24 May 2020, when carbon intensity was recorded at 46 CO2g/kWh and the grid ran for the full month of May without coal-fired electricity. With a drop in demand and great weather, the conditions have been right for greening the energy mix through the pandemic. This year’s Earth Day falls as the UK continues along its roadmap out of lockdown. As normality in day-to-day life resumes and Britain’s notoriously dull weather brings shorter and colder days with little wind through the winter, the real test will be maintaining, and indeed increasing, the extent to which our nations are powered by renewable energy.