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Fossil fuels are often pointed to as the main culprit behind climate change and depicted as an ill in urgent need of remedy. In the U.K., progress is being made toward that goal. For the first time since 1882, the global leader used more renewable energy sources than fossil fuels to generate power, a move that may suggest that fossil fuels can indeed be phased out with time.
According to the U.K. climate news and analysis website Carbon Brief, from July through September 2019, renewable energy sources within the U.K. generated 29.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity. This is 0.4 more TWh of electricity than fossil fuels generated. This news follows a week earlier this year during which the U.K. entirely forewent its longstanding, expensive coal infrastructure in favor of other power sources, showcasing the country’s interest in more environmentally-friendly energy sources.
Although an energy difference of just 0.4 TWh may seem unremarkable, the terawatt-hour is a massive amount of power. In the U.S., for example, the average home requires 914 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power per month. During the three-month period that Carbon Brief examined, this amount would triple to 2,742 kWh. Every TWh contains 1 billion kWh, so this math translates to the 0.4 TWh difference powering hundreds of thousands of homes entirely from renewable resources.
Those concerned with non-renewable energy use might wonder how the U.K. achieved this miraculous energy shift. Carbon Brief’s analysis suggests that a decrease in demand driven by an increase in energy grid efficiency is one factor. Additionally, as energy costs decrease and renewable generation capacity increases, the U.K. can more easily power its energy grid using renewable resources. Renewable energy figures from a decade ago put numbers to this shift – in 2009, the U.K. generated 60.4 TWh of electricity from fossil fuels and just 5.7 TWh from renewable sources. These figures are, respectively, roughly 30 more and 25 less than recent numbers.
Carbon Brief’s analysis also described the composition of the entire energy grid. During the July through September period being analyzed, the U.K. generated over 40 percent of its energy from renewable resources. Thanks to a wind farm so large it has broken U.K. records, 20 percent of this renewable energy came from wind power, with another six percent coming from solar power and another 19 percent from nuclear sources.
There’s just one catch to Carbon Brief’s report. Among the 40 percent of energy said to come from renewable sources, 12 percent originated from the burning of biomass and wood pellets. In the U.K., this energy source is classified as renewable because wood pellets come from trees, which can be replanted. Additionally, these trees take in the carbon that the wood-burning generates. However, some studies show that replanted trees can take a number of decades to reabsorb carbon, meaning that this energy source expels far more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Even with the U.K.’s recent strides toward renewable energy sources, more work needs to be done.