Renewables outpace fossil fuels for the first time in Britain

Fossil fuels, which generated over three-quarters of power in the UK in 1990 accounted for 43 per cent in 2019

A view of the cooling towers of the Drax coal-fired power station near Selby, northern England on September 25, 2015. Energy company Drax has abandoned a 1 billion GBP installation of carbon capture technology to cut emissions, citing  the UK government's reduction of subsidies for renewable energy. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP)

Britain generated more power from renewable sources than fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution, following the lead of other European countries such as Germany in outgrowing the need for hydrocarbons.

The UK generated 48.5 per cent of its energy from a mix of wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower in 2019, with fossil fuels accounting for 43 per cent, according to the country's National Grid. Biomass and energy from waste accounted for the remaining 8.5 per cent, data showed.

The transition marks a huge step-change for the UK, whose economy was built on coal during the Industrial Revolution, but the high levels of carbon dioxide it emits means it is now being phased out by several developed European economies.

Britain was also an early adopter of crude oil as a replacement to coal, initially to power warships during the First World War. The fuel switch eventually had significant repercussions for the country's domestic coal industry as well as its foreign policy.

The country's transition into a largely renewable-powered nation was a "historic moment", National Grid chief executive John Pettigrew said.

The rapid deployment of renewables, as well as a decline in the domestic use of coal, have been behind the rise in clean power capacity. Fossil fuel use has steadily declined in the UK from generating 75.5 per cent of the country's energy in 1990, and a milestone was hit last year when no coal was burned for a period of more than 18 days. The country plans to phase out its three remaining coal-powered plants by 2025 and adopted a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The move has been prompted by growing concerns in the UK and across Europe over climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

The EU, from which the UK has begun a withdrawal process, has set stringent guidelines to push for an energy transition, aiming for a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Across Europe, climate change activism spearheaded by activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has led to the public increasingly disapproving of investments in hydrocarbon businesses and activities.

BP's outgoing chief executive Bob Dudley noted in the company's annual energy outlook for 2019 that meeting the rising demand for energy while reducing carbon emissions is the biggest challenge facing hydrocarbon companies today.