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Are we really becoming a low-carbon economy?


The government’s latest stats on energy usage show that nearly half of our electricity came from nuclear and renewables in 2015.

Katie Kozlowska, head of the energy lawyers team at Harrison Drury, runs through five things we learnt from the latest numbers.

1. Use of fossil fuels continues to decline

The latest Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) has confirmed the UK’s continuing low-carbon transition with fossil fuel’s share of energy supplies hitting a record low.

Fossil fuels supplied 82% of the UK’s primary energy in 2015, the lowest share in records going back to 1970, with coal use falling to 25 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Just to put that figure into perspective, that’s a fall of 21% in one year and down 50% since 2012. It’s also only a quarter of the amount used in 1970.

Oil and gas demand increased slightly in 2015 (1.4% and 2.7% respectively) because of falling prices and colder weather compared to a year earlier.

2. Domestic energy usage is falling

Oil barrelsWhile UK energy usage increased slightly in 2015, owing to the aforementioned weather, it still continued its decade-long decline once those variations are taken into account.

However, the reductions in industrial energy usage appear to have tailed off, possibly as a result of increasing output.

The one area where the decline trend is being reversed is in the transport sector where energy usage has increased for two years running.

It’s thought that cheaper oil prices could be contributing to an increase in vehicle use.

3. Renewable energy increases its market share

solar panelsNuclear (21%) and renewables (25%) generated almost half of the UK’s electricity in 2015. Within the renewables sector, onshore wind generation was up 23% on 2014 and offshore wind and biomass both grew by 30%.

By far the biggest increase was in solar, which grew a huge 87% on the previous year and met around 2% of the UK’s electricity needs in 2015.

However, it’s thought that the closing of subsidy schemes for solar energy was a contributory factor to this sharp increase as installers raced to meet the deadline for getting the subsidies. The increase in solar generation is likely to be less marked in 2016.

4. 2016 is set to be another record year for renewables

According to the latest government figures, the volume of energy being produced by the UK’s offshore wind projects was 10% higher in the first three months of 2016 than it was in the corresponding period last year.

Solar_and_windOverall the UK’s renewable energy output has grown by over 6% in the first quarter of 2016. Similarly, solar showed an increase of 41% (a level of production that saw solar claim the largest share of UK renewable capacity, overtaking onshore wind), bioenergy grew by 18% and hydro was up 1.8%.

The only source to suffer a decline was onshore wind which dipped by 10.5% compared with the same months of 2015.

Once combined the government reported renewables as a whole produced 25.1% of the UK’s total power during the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 2.3% on the same period of 2015, a rise the government attributes to increased capacity.

5. Renewable energy use in perspective

Fossil fuels graphicWhile the increase in energy usage from renewable sources is impressive, it’s worth just setting the numbers in context. The UK still relies on fossil fuels for 82% of its energy usage and the production of combined coal, oil and gas actually rose in 2015 – the first annual increase since the late 1990s.

However, what these latest figures do show is that the transition to a low-carbon economy is gathering pace.

Britain’s updated carbon budget, which recently became law, requires the power sector to be largely decarbonised by 2030, and as part of the Paris agreement on climate change, the UK has pledged to almost completely decarbonise all energy use soon after 2050, meaning that renewable energy usage is only going to increase.

Katie Kozlowska is head of the energy and utilities solicitors team at Harrison Drury in Preston. To speak to Katie, call her on 01772 258321. We also have lawyers in Kendal, Lancaster, Garstang and Clitheroe.

Want to know more about how we can help businesses and individuals in the energy sector? Visit our Energy & Utilities page.

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