More Renewables Than Fossil Fuels: As the U.K. Reaches an Energy Milestone, Here’s How Far Others Have Gotten

Renewable energy has made a breakthrough in the U.K. The third quarter of this year was the first where more electricity was generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.

According to new analysis by the climate change analysis site Carbon Brief, Q3 saw 40% of power come from renewables such as wind, biomass and solar, while fossil fuels—almost all gas, as coal and oil now have a negligible share of the U.K. energy scene—accounted for 39% of generation. (The remaining 21% largely came from nuclear.)

Carbon Brief said the milestone backed up the prediction by National Grid, the operator of the British power transmission network, that fossil fuels would this year account for less generation than “zero carbon” energy sources—in other words, including nuclear but not biomass, the burning of which emits greenhouse gases.

The rise in renewables’ British fortunes is largely down to more capacity coming online, particularly offshore wind farms. The scale of wind power generation in the country is in the midst of a massive boost, not least because the turbines are becoming bigger and more efficient—this means such projects are commercially viable, and do not need the subsidies handed out in the past by the U.K. government.

So how does the British renewables share compare with those of other countries?


Some countries’ power grids run entirely (or almost entirely) on renewable energy, with examples including Iceland, Norway and Costa Rica. This is largely a function of the natural sources available to them—mainly hydro power, with a hefty dash of geothermal.

The U.K. doesn’t boast so many geothermal energy sources—though a drilling project to tap into “hot rocks” will begin in Cornwall next summer—and it has relatively few hydro power installations. But it has no shortage of wind.

EU neighbors

Sweden is the top performer in the European Union when it comes to use of renewable energy. It’s targeting 100% renewable energy production by 2040 and met its 2020 goal—50%—seven years ago. In fact, the International Energy Agency noted this year that Sweden had the lowest share of fossil fuels in its primary energy-supply mix of any country that’s a member of the organization.

Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition) is one of the most highly publicized green energy plans out there, and it saw renewable energy production cross the 40%-share threshold last year. However, fossil fuels still accounted for around 45% of German energy generation in 2018.

A key difference between the German and British situations is the role played by nuclear energy. In Germany, where it is being urgently phased out, nuclear had a share of just over 13% of last year’s power generation; in the U.K., nuclear still accounted for 19% of generation last quarter.

Spain took two fifths of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with about half of that coming from wind. And last month, 43% of Portugal‘s energy also came from renewable sources, versus 42% from non-renewables.

Global scene

China’s share of renewables in its power-generation mix is, at almost 27% last year, relatively low compared with some of the above-mentioned countries. With ever-increasing energy demands, the country remains the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions.

However, remember China’s scale. The country was also responsible for nearly a third of the world’s renewables investment last year.

India, another major carbon-emitter, is gradually leaning more on renewable power, which currently accounts for just over 19% of generation. Japan’s renewables share of generation stood at 17.4% last year.

As for the United States, last year saw renewables take a 18% share of power generation—coal’s share, at 27%, was down on the previous year but natural gas, another fossil fuel, is what’s taking up the slack.

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