The latest figures from BEIS on the generation mix show a dramatic rise in the fortunes of renewables. By Jamie Hailstone.

There is no escaping the fact that the past couple of years have not been easy for the British renewables sector, but the publication last week of the latest “Energy Trends” report by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was a real cause for celebration.

It shows a record 29.8 per cent of the UK’s energy was generated by renewable energy sources in the second quarter of 2017, beating the previous quarterly record of 26.9 per cent, which was for the first three months of this year.

It was also up 4.4 percentage points on the share for April to June last year. According to BEIS’s figures, renewable electricity generation was 22.5TWh from April to June.

The chief executive of Energy UK, Lawrence Slade, says the figures show renewable energy is now “an integral part of our energy mix”, while the executive director of RenewableUK, Emma Pinchbeck, says the sector is an “industrial success story, attracting investment, creating new jobs, and powering our economy”.

The Energy Trends report says that in the second three months of this year, electricity generated from onshore wind increased by 50 per cent, from 4TWh in the same time period last year to 6TWh, with generation from offshore wind up by 22 per cent to 4TWh.

Hydro generation fell by 12.4 per cent on a year earlier to 800,000MWh, mainly due to lower average rainfall, while at the end of June, solar PV represented one-third of all renewable capacity at 12.5GW.

Total renewable electricity capacity was 38GW at the end of June, which represents a 13.2 per cent increase (4.4GW) compared with a year earlier.

James Brabben, a consultant from Cornwall, says the increases in capacity were to be expected because a number of projects have come online through grace periods under the now closed Renewables Obligation and continue at a slower rate through the feed-in-tariff regime.

“This disruption and record-breaking will not stop anytime soon, because proven projects are coming through,” he says. “We think the scale of growth will continue for at least the next year, because there are even more projects coming through under the new contracts for difference (CfD) scheme.”

Brabben adds: “Some of the offshore windfarms are among the biggest ever built and will add over 5.7GW to the market by 2020. We’ve forecast that in 2017 overall around 10GW will be added to the system, which is about a 25 per cent growth in the market from last year.”

The statistics in the Energy Trends report also highlight the growing intermittency of renewable sources and how the market is turning to this issue.

“If a quarter is not so windy, you need 2-3TWh to come from somewhere else,” Brabben points out. “This is supporting increased activity in flexibility services, such as batteries and reserve power, to accommodate further renewables on the system.”

According to the Energy Trends report, the largest new renewable schemes in 2016 were Burbo Bank Extension (200MW) for offshore wind; Dunmaglass (94MW), Corriegarth (69MW) and Dersalloch (69MW) for onshore wind; Shotwick (72MW), Swindon (61MW), Sandridge (50MW) for solar; Brigg REP (55MW), Snetterton (45MW) and Wilton International 11 (50MW) for biomass and waste.

Of the four regions in Great Britain, England had the most renewable capacity and generation, largely due to the three biomass units at Drax.

The report found there were 5,073 non-PV sites in England generating electricity from renewable sources in 2016, along with 3,735 non-PV sites in Scotland, 834 in Wales and 1,093 in Northern Ireland.

In addition, there were 677,632 PV sites reported in England, 53,027 for Scotland, 51,998 for Wales and 22,779 for Northern Ireland.

In terms of a regional breakdown, the figures show, excluding PV, there were 64 renewable sites in London, compared with 1,001 in the East of England. Yorkshire and Humber had the highest number of renewable sites (excluding PV), followed by the East of England and the South East.

In Yorkshire and Humber, more than half (57 per cent) of capacity was from biomass and waste, mostly from the Drax Group’s biomass plants, 28 per cent from wind and 11 from PV. In the East of England, 48 per cent of capacity was from PV and 40 per cent from wind. In the South East, 52 per cent of capacity was from PV in 2016, 33 per cent from wind and 8 per cent from biomass and waste.

“The increase in renewables on the system and the falling costs of these technologies is great news for consumers and meeting our carbon targets, but we need a mix of energy technologies to maintain system stability,” says chief executive Drax Group Andy Koss.

“At Drax we have upgraded half of the power station to sustainable biomass from coal and now produce 17 per cent of the UK’s renewable power – enough for four million households.

“Biomass is the only renewable technology that can be flexed up and down to meet demand and provide the balancing services National Grid expects to be increasingly important as more intermittent renewables come online and demand for power rises. At Drax we’re looking at ways to reduce the costs of this technology,” adds Koss.

The Energy Trends report also highlighted the growing role of smaller energy suppliers, many of whom offer green energy tariffs, as a force for renewables growth in the UK. According to the report, the market share of smaller suppliers has increased from 2.7 per cent in 2010 to 14.2 per cent in 2016.

Over the same time period the aggregated market share of the largest nine energy suppliers fell from 96 per cent in 2010 to 85.8 per cent last year. “More and more people are switching from the big six to smaller suppliers and this is only going to increase,” says Bulb Energy co-founder Hayden Wood.

“It’s really quite simple – we continue offering excellent customer service, while the big six keep facing complaints,” he says. “Until they address these fundamental issues, we think they’ll continue losing homes to smaller suppliers like Bulb.”

Overall, the Energy Trends report paints a picture of a renewables sector that has weathered the storm of subsidy cuts and continued to grow, regardless of central government support.

With more projects coming online in the next few years and the recent developments with the price of offshore wind in the CfD auction, the message is clear: renewables are here to stay, they are a vital part of the UK’s energy mix, and they cannot be ignored.

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