What is the renewable energy sector? 

We all know the damage that fossil fuels have done to our environment. 

The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by 50% since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the impact on our world’s climate has been profound. Carbon dioxide traps heat within the atmosphere, causing overall temperatures to rise. This in turn affects the weather, making it erratic and extreme. 

To combat this climate change, governments around the world are turning to renewable energy. In fact, the UK Government announced its ambition to build the infrastructure to generate up to 50GW of power from renewable sources by 2030 last year. This is more than enough to power every home in the UK – of which we would like to see up to 5GW from floating offshore wind in deeper seas. 

So, what exactly is the Renewable Energy Sector? We’ll look at the different types of renewable energy this sector generates, and how much energy it contributes here in the UK.

What is Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy is energy derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed. For example, sunlight and wind are constantly being replenished. 

In contrast, fossil fuels (like coal, oil and gas) are non-renewable resources that take hundreds of millions of years to form. When they are burned to produce energy, they cause harmful greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide. 

Renewable energy creates far lower emissions than burning fossil fuels. Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy is key to addressing the climate crisis. 

What types of Renewable Energy are used in the UK?

There are a number of different renewable energy sources used in the UK:

  • Bioenergy
  • Hydro
  • Wind
  • Solar
  • Heat pumps

In the UK in 2021, bioenergy accounted for about 63% of renewable energy sources used, with most of the remainder coming from wind (25%), heat pumps (5.1%) and solar (4.9%).

Bioenergy

Biomass power is electricity generated using plant-based fuels (including wood pellets, bioenergy crops, or even agricultural and domestic waste). When biomass is used as an energy source, it’s called a ‘feedstock’. Dry, combustible feedstocks such as wood pellets are burnt in boilers or furnaces. This, in turn, boils water and creates steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity.  Wet feedstocks, like food waste, are put in sealed tanks where they rot and produce methane gas (also called biogas). This gas can be captured and burnt to generate electricity. 

Bioenergy is renewable because we are continually growing plants and trees for a variety of purposes, but these processes often create residues that aren’t needed. These residues can be used as a low-carbon, renewable alternative to displace fossil fuels. Purpose-grown crops can also be used.  

Bioenergy generated around 12.9% of the total UK electricity supply in 2021. Biomass power is particularly useful because it does not depend on the weather, making it a flexible and reliable energy source. The Climate Change Committee recommends dedicated energy crops and forest residues as future sources of domestic biomass. 

Demand for biomass is expected to grow significantly over the coming decades; the Climate Change Committee believes sustainably sourced bioenergy could provide up to 15% of the UK’s primary energy by 2050.  If biomass is to play an important role in meeting UK net zero targets then domestic production will need to expand substantially. 

Solar Power

Solar power uses energy from sunlight to create electricity. Energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the PV cells in the panel which in turn creates electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow. 

The key challenge limiting how much electricity can be generated by solar power in our country is the limit to the amount of sunshine available in the UK. Having said that, solar energy is cost-effective and low maintenance, and the UK generated 0.7 GW of electricity from solar panels in 2022. 

Wind Power

Wind power is an increasingly popular form of renewable energy that harnesses the power of the wind to generate electricity. Wind turbines are built in large groups called “farms”. The wind hits their blades, turning them, and the rotation spins a generator to create electricity. There are a number of benefits to wind power, including its low carbon footprint, cost-effectiveness and reliability. 

One major challenge is the intermittency of the wind itself; as weather conditions change, so too does the amount of energy generated by wind turbines. Additionally, wind farms can be noisy and have an impact on local wildlife habitats if not properly sited. 

However, when wind turbines are installed in remote locations, such as offshore, they are able to produce consistent levels of electricity over time, making them a reliable source of energy. 

The UK boasts some of the largest wind farms in Europe, most of which are placed out to sea between the UK and the continent. 2.7 GW of electricity was generated by offshore wind farms in 2022. 

Hydro Power

Hydropower harnesses the power of falling water to generate electricity. It is considered one of the cheapest forms of energy production, making it an attractive option to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. 

One significant challenge is the impact hydropower can have on ecosystems and wildlife in the surrounding areas. The construction of dams and reservoirs can alter natural river flows and disrupt fish migration patterns. However, when used in consideration of these factors, it is an effective way to produce electricity.  

In 2021, the UK recorded 1.4 terawatt-hours worth of electricity from small hydropower facilities, with large-scale hydropower plants generating roughly 4.1 terawatt-hours worth of electricity. Hydropower contributed around 1.8% to the UK’s renewable energy sources in 2022.  

Who regulates the Renewable Energy Sector? 

Renewable energy is a rapidly growing sector as more people turn to sustainable energy sources. However, with any industry comes regulation, and renewable energy is no exception. 

So who regulates renewable energy? 

In the UK, there are several bodies responsible for regulating renewable energy sources, ensuring that they comply with industry standards and meet government targets. These include government agencies, independent regulatory bodies, and industry associations.

The main regulator of renewable energy in the UK is the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem). Ofgem is an independent regulator that oversees the electricity and gas markets in Great Britain, including renewable energy. Its responsibilities include promoting competition in these markets, protecting consumers’ interests, and facilitating investment in new infrastructure projects.

Another key regulatory body for renewable energy in the UK is The Energy Saving Trust (EST). The EST is a non-profit organisation that provides advice on how to save energy at home or work.

Renewable energy: a sector set to grow

The renewable energy sector is rapidly growing and its potential for providing a supply of clean energy is significant. While fossil fuels have been the dominant source of energy for many years, they are rapidly becoming outdated and unsustainable. In recent years, there has been a significant shift towards renewable energy sources such as bioenergy, wind, hydro and solar power, and this trend is set to continue well into the future.

Renewable energy has a promising future as technological advances make it more viable, accessible and affordable. By embracing the potential of renewable energy, countries around the world can move towards a more sustainable future. 2022 was a record-breaking year for renewable energy in the UK, with around 40% of the UK’s electricity made up of solar, wind, bioenergy and hydropower. Our reliance on imported fossil fuels cannot continue, and so we must invest in renewable energies if we are to meet future energy requirements. 

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