The current target for renewable energy in the UK is currently 15% by 2020, which means 15% of all energy produced must come from a renewable source, such as solar, wind or tidal power. We broke through this target in 2014, and since then we have seen a steady increase in the amount of energy that is produced renewably. This, however, raises the question, with more and more of our energy being produced using renewable sources; how reliable is renewable energy compared to other, non-renewable sources?
To answer this, we need to look at how renewable energy is produced and consider the issues surrounding each…
The main source of renewable energy in the UK is wind power, both off-shore and on-shore. We have some of the best locations for wind power in the world and are considered to be the best in Europe – who would have thought our terrible weather is good for something. We currently generate 21.5 gigawatts of energy through wind power, which is around 18% of all energy produced in the UK and is just behind nuclear power, which is currently sitting at 19.5%. The downside to wind power is its variability. The amount of energy produced at a given point is dependant on wind speeds. If wind speed is too low (less than about 2.5 m/s) then the wind turbines will not be able to make electricity, and if it is too high (more than about 25 m/s) the turbines will have to be shut down to avoid damage. When this happens, other power sources must have the capacity to meet demand. This may sound like a major issue but reports generally agree that the variability of wind power does not make the grid unmanageable, and the additional costs can be quantified.
Solar power represented a minuscule part of energy production in the UK until the 2010’s when it began to increase rapidly. In 2006, the UK had about 12 Mega Watts (MW) of solar capacity. As of January 2019, this figure skyrocketed to 13,123 MW installed UK solar capacity across 979,983 installations. A massive increase of 110,000%.
This is certainly a huge amount of solar installations, but according to reports, solar energy production only makes up 3.9% of energy generated in the UK, which is slightly less than coal production, currently standing at 5.1%. This is primarily down to a) Solar panels not being able to gather solar energy during the night, and b) The weather in the UK not being as sunny as other countries, which means efficiency drops significantly. While weather predictions are becoming more and more accurate, we cannot do anything to increase the amount of sunshine in the UK.
Biomass energy is produced mainly by burning biofuel. Biofuel is made from plants, refuse, alcohol fuels and landfill gas. Biomass energy currently makes up around 11% of all energy production in the UK and is particularly reliable as it’s not dependant on the weather.
Due to the reliability of biomass fuel, it is used to support the grid when other sources (such as solar or wind) aren’t able to generate enough energy to support the current demand on the grid. The downside to biomass production is that it uses up valuable farming space. This land is used to produce the plants needed to create bio-fuel and is often seen as an inefficient use of space, due to the amount needed to generate even a small amount of biomass energy.
In conclusion, the reliability of renewable energy overall is not reliant on a single source, but from several. All working together to pick up the demand of the grid when another falters. The excess energy produced from these sources is also stored for use when the grid needs it, which can possibly help to reduce the number of blackouts caused in the UK. While we’re still not using 100% renewable energy in the UK, we are showing a steady increase in the amount of electricity produced using renewable sources each year and will soon hopefully be relying on these sources more than fossil fuels.
As for reliability, we know the wind will never stop blowing the propellers of our wind farms, the sun (although forever limited in England) will always shine on our solar panels and the moon will always be there to cause waves to create tidal power. In the case of oil, gas and coal, there is a chance and definitely some ambiguity about whether at some point these sources will come to an end. So yes, renewable energy is reliable, but at the moment at least, they need to be backed up by our traditional sources until our knowledge and the types of renewable energy multiply or strengthen.
Article written by: Bailey Howe, Account Manager