Towards the end of April 2017, Britain went a full day without using coal to generate electricity for the first time in 135 years. Following the landmark announcement, there were many in the UK celebrating the achievement – it gave testament to the UK’s changing energy system as the government plans to phase out coal production by 2025.
At first sight, this indeed appears to be a fine achievement for a country that remained heavily reliant on coal until the 1990s, as Greenpeace UK said, ‘A decade ago, a day without coal would have been unimaginable’. Furthermore, when compared to Trump’s relaxed take on climate change and endorsement of America’s shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal industries, the UK appears significantly more progressive than their transatlantic neighbours.
However, we ask – could Britain be doing more to produce cleaner, less fossil-fuel-reliant electricity? Since the Paris Climate Treaty in late 2015, there has been a concerted push by multiple countries around the world to reduce emissions and increase clean energy production.
Famously, Costa Rica ran on renewable energy for half of 2016 by utilising hydropower, solar and wind energy. The next most notable renewable energy advocates are our European counterparts. In May 2016, Portugal went four and a half days using solely renewable energy. Likewise, Denmark and Germany have both survived 24 hours using renewable energy alone, and Iceland is almost 100% reliant on renewable energy sources.
For brief moments in 2016, both Germany and Denmark produced more renewable energy than was being consumed, leading to power prices going negative for several hours at a time, meaning commercial customers were being paid to consume electricity. Both have plans to be 100% renewable by 2050, and export surplus renewable energy to neighbouring countries.
Critically, both India and China, the world’s two largest populations, are also investing heavily into renewable energy, with India aiming to be 60% reliant on renewables by 2027.
As a result, all of these countries either improved or maintained their positions on EY’s Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index (RECAI) in 2016, meanwhile the UK fell to an all-time low in 14th position. Britain remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and is a big advocate of nuclear energy, as was proven last year with the approval of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. The use of nuclear power remains a contentious issue, and the debate over its pros and cons will continue for many years.
Therefore, while the UK is heading in the right direction, there is clearly plenty still to be done before it is competing with the cleanest and greenest countries in the world. We won't be seeing Britain without any of these for the next few decades at least.
How will Britain do this?
Aside from the obvious – increased investment into renewable energy sources – the UK must improve the efficiency of day-to-day consumer goods, which can subsequently lead to behavioural change towards energy consumption across the wider population. Be this through demand management by the UK government; for example, incentivising products such as electric cars, or through greater investment into smarter and more energy efficient home appliances. Domestic smart technology is still in its infancy and thus presents a huge opportunity as the UK continues to seek innovative new approaches to improving its energy consumption.