Energy in the United Kingdom

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Energy use in the United Kingdom stood at 37.83 MWh (3,252 kilogrammes of oil equivalent) per capita in 2010 compared to a world average of 21.54 MWh (1,852 kilogrammes of oil equivalent).[1] In 2012, total electricity consumed was 317.5 TWh (27.3 million tonnes of oil equivalent).[2] Demand for electricity in 2012 was 35.8GW on average,[3] and 57.490GW at its peak.[4]

Successive UK governments have outlined numerous commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. One such announcement was the Low Carbon Transition Plan launched by the Brown ministry in July 2009, which aimed to generate 30% electricity from renewable sources, and 40% from low carbon content fuels by 2020. Notably, the UK is one of the best sites in Europe for wind energy, and wind power production is its fastest growing supply, in 2014 it generated 9.3% of the UK's total electricity.[5][6][7]

Government commitments to reduce emissions are occurring against a backdrop of economic crisis across Europe.[8] During the European financial crisis, Europe’s consumption of electricity shrank by 5%, with primary production also facing a noticeable decline. Britain's trade deficit was reduced by 8% due to substantial cuts in energy imports.[9] Between 2007 and 2012, the UK's peak electrical demand has fallen from 61.5 GW to 57.5 GW[10]

UK government energy policy aims to play a key role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, whilst meeting energy demand. Shifting availabilities of resources and development of technologies also change the country's energy mix through changes in costs. In 2010, the United Kingdom was ranked 9th in the World on the Environmental Performance Index,[11] which measures how well a country carries through environmental policy.

London by night seen from the International Space Station.


Energy in the United Kingdom[12]
Capita Prim. energy Production Import Electricity CO2-emission
million TWh TWh TWh TWh Mt
2004 59.8 2,718 2,619 135 371 537
2007 60.8 2,458 2,050 522 373 523
2008 61.4 2,424 1,939 672 372 511
2009 61.8 2,288 1,848 641 352 466
2010 62.2 2,355 1,730 705 357 484
2013 62.7 2,187 1,507 843 346 443
Change 2004-10 3.9% -13.3% -33.9% 420% -3.9% -10.0  %
Mtoe = 11.63 TWh>, Prim. energy includes energy losses that are 2/3 for nuclear power[13]

As recently as 2004, the UK was a net exporter of energy, however by 2010, more than 25% of UK energy was imported.

2015 fuel taxes, in pounds[14]
Diesel Gasoline Natural gas Coal Electricity
per unit liter liter m3 MWh tonne MWh
Excise  ? 0.4682
Environment 1.93 15.12 5.54

Fossil fuels[edit]

Fossil fuel consumption in the UK. Through the 90s, coal use declined while natural gas use increased.

During 2008, the total energy consumed in the United Kingdom was 234.439 million tonnes of oil equivalent (= circa 9.85 EJ = 9.85×1018J).[15]

Concerns over peak oil have been raised by high-profile voices in the United Kingdom such as Sir David King[16] and the Industry Task-Force on Peak Oil and Energy Security.[17] The latter's 2010 report states that "The next five years will see us face another crunch - the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well." (Sir Richard Branson and Ian Marchant).[18]

Natural gas[edit]

United Kingdom produced 60% of its consumed natural gas in 2010. In five years the United Kingdom moved from almost gas self-sufficient (see North Sea Gas) to 40% gas import in 2010. Gas was almost 40% of total primary energy supply (TPES) and electricity more than 45% in 2010. Underground storage was about 5% of annual demand and more than 10% of net imports. There is an alternative fuel obligation in the United Kingdom.[19] (see Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation)

Gasfields include Amethyst gasfield, Armada gasfield, Easington Catchment Area, East Knapton, Everest gasfield and Rhum gasfield.

A gas leak occurred in March 2012 at the Elgin-Franklin fields, where about 200,000 cubic metres of gas was escaping every day. Total missed out on about £83m of potential income.[20]

Electricity supply[edit]

A graph showing UK electricity demand mapped over electricity supplied to the grid by wind power since 2011.
Electricity supplied (net) 1948 to 2008[21]
Electricity production by year, by source

With the development of the national grid, the switch to using electricity, United Kingdom electricity consumption increased by around 150% between the post war nationalisation of the industry in 1948 and the mid-1960s. During the 1960s growth slowed as the market became saturated. The United Kingdom is planning to reform its electricity market. It plans to introduce a capacity mechanism and contracts for difference to encourage the building of new generation.

Fuel sources[edit]

During the 1940s some 90% of the generating capacity was fired by coal, with oil providing most of the remainder.

The United Kingdom started to develop a nuclear generating capacity in the 1950s, with Calder Hall being connected to the grid on 27 August 1956. Though the production of weapons-grade plutonium was the main reason behind this power station, other civil stations followed, and 26% of the nation's electricity was generated from nuclear power at its peak in 1997.

Despite the flow of North Sea oil from the mid-1970s, oil fuelled generation remained relatively small and continued to decline.

Starting in 1993, and continuing through to the 1990s, a combination of factors led to a so-called Dash for Gas, during which the use of coal was scaled back in favour of gas-fuelled generation. This was sparked by the privatisation of the National Coal Board, British Gas and the Central Electricity Generating Board; the introduction of laws facilitating competition within the energy markets; and the availability of cheap gas from the North Sea. In 1990 just 1.09% of all gas consumed in the country was used in electricity generation; by 2004 the figure was 30.25%.[22]

By 2004, coal use in power stations had fallen to 50.5 million tonnes, representing 82.4% of all coal used in 2004 (a fall of 43.6% compared to 1980 levels), though up slightly from its low in 1999.[22]

From the mid-1990s new renewable energy sources began to contribute to the electricity generated, adding to a small hydroelectricity generating capacity.

In 2010, total electricity production stood at 363 TWh (down from a peak of 385 TWh in 2005), generated from the following sources:[2][23][24]

A typical offshore oil/gas platform
  • Gas: 40.4% (0.05% in 1990)
  • Coal: 32.3% (67% in 1990)
  • Nuclear: 17.6% (19% in 1990)
  • Wind: 2.9% (0% in 1990)
  • Hydroelectric: 1.7% (2.6% in 1990)
  • Bio-Energy: 3.4% (0% in 1990)
  • Imports: 0.7% (4% in 1990)
  • Oil: 1.5% (7% in 1990)
  • Other fuels: 6.6% (1% in 1990)

The UK Government energy policy had targeted a total contribution from renewables to achieve 10% by 2010, but it was not until 2012 that this figure was exceeded; renewable energy sources supplied 11.3% (41.3 TWh) of the electricity generated in the United Kingdom in 2012.[25] The Scottish Government has a target of generating 17% to 18% of Scotland's electricity from renewables by 2010,[26] rising to 40% by 2020.[27]

UK 'energy gap'[edit]

UK Electricity Capacity Margin[2]

In the early years of the 2000s, concerns grew over the prospect of an 'energy gap' in United Kingdom generating capacity. This is forecast to arise because it is expected that a number of coal fired power stations will close due to being unable to meet the clean air requirements of the European Large Combustion Plant Directive (directive 2001/80/EC).[28] In addition, the United Kingdom's remaining Magnox nuclear stations will have closed by 2015. The oldest AGR nuclear power station has had its life extended by ten years,[29] and it is likely many of the others can be life-extended, reducing the potential gap suggested by the current accounting closure dates of between 2014 and 2023 for the AGR power stations.[30]

A report from the industry in 2005 forecast that, without action to fill the gap, there would be a 20% shortfall in electricity generation capacity by 2015. Similar concerns were raised by a report published in 2000 by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (Energy - The Changing Climate). The 2006 Energy Review attracted considerable press coverage - in particular in relation to the prospect of constructing a new generation of nuclear power stations, in order to prevent the rise in carbon dioxide emissions that would arise if other conventional power stations were to be built.

Among the public, according to a November 2005 poll conducted by YouGov for Deloitte, 35% of the population expect that by 2020 the majority of electricity generation will come from renewable energy (more than double the government's target, and far larger than the 5.5% generated as of 2008),[31] 23% expect that the majority will come from nuclear power, and only 18% that the majority will come from fossil fuels. 92% thought the Government should do more to explore alternative power generation technologies to reduce carbon emissions.[32]

In June 2013, the industry regulator Ofgem warned that the UK's energy sector faces "unprecedented challenges" and that "spare electricity power production capacity could fall to 2% by 2015, increasing the risk of blackouts". Proposed solutions "could include negotiating with major power users for them to reduce demand during peak times in return for payment".[33]

Plugging the energy gap[edit]

The first move to plug the United Kingdom's energy gap was the June 2006 announcement by Centrica that they would proceed to construct the conventionally gas-fired Langage Power Station.

In 2007, proposals for the construction of two new coal-fired power stations were announced, in Tilbury, Essex and in Kingsnorth, Kent. If built, they will be the first coal-fired stations to be built in the United Kingdom in 20 years.[34]

Beyond these new plants, there are a number of options that might be used to provide the new generating capacity, while minimising carbon emissions and producing less residues and contamination. Fossil fuel power plants might provide a solution if there was a satisfactory and economical way of reducing their carbon emissions. Carbon capture might provide a way of doing this; however the technology is relatively untried and costs are relatively high. As yet (2006) there are no power plants in operation with a full carbon capture and storage system.

However, due to reducing demand in the late-2000s recession removing any medium term gap, and high gas prices, in 2011 and 2012 over 2 GW of older, less efficient, gas generation plant was mothballed.[35][36] In 2011 electricity demand dropped 4%, and about 6.5 GW of additional gas-fired capacity is being added over 2011 and 2012. Early in 2012 the reserve margin stood at the high level of 32%.[37]

Another important factor in reduced electrical demand in recent years has come from the phasing out of Incandescent light bulbs and a switch to compact fluorescent and LED lighting. Research by the University of Oxford[10] has shown that the average annual electrical consumption for lighting in a UK home fell from 720 kWh in 1997 to 508 kWh in 2012. Between 2007 and 2012, the UK's peak electrical demand has fallen from 61.5 GW to 57.5 GW[10]

Regional differences[edit]

While in some ways limited by which powers are devolved, the four countries of the United Kingdom have different energy mixes and ambitions. Scotland currently has a target of 80% of electricity from renewables by 2020, which was increased from an original ambition of 50% by 2020 after it exceeded its interim target of 31 per cent by 2011.[38] It has a quarter of the EU's estimated offshore wind potential,[39] and is at the forefront of testing various marine energy systems.[40]


Heysham nuclear power stations

Britain's fleet of operational reactors consists of 14 advanced gas-cooled reactors on six discrete sites, along with two Magnox units at Wylfa, and one PWR unit at Sizewell B. Overall, the installed nuclear capacity in the United Kingdom is between 10 and 11 GW.[41][42] In addition, the UK experimented with Fast Breeder reactor technologies at Dounreay in Scotland, however the last fast breeder (with 250MWe of capacity) was shut down in 1994.[43]

While nuclear power does not produce significant carbon dioxide in generation (though the construction, mining, waste handling and disposal, and decommissioning do generate some carbon emissions), it raises other environmental and security concerns. Despite this, it has enormous potential for generating electricity, when it is taken into consideration that uranium could last up to a hundred years.[44] However, even with changes to the planning system to speed applications, there are doubts over whether the necessary timescale could be met, and over the financial viability of nuclear power with present oil and gas prices. With no nuclear plants having been constructed since Sizewell B in 1995, there are also likely to be capacity issues within the native nuclear industry. The existing privatised nuclear supplier, British Energy, had been in financial trouble in 2004.

In October 2010 the British Government gave the go-ahead for the construction of up to eight new nuclear power plants.[45] However, the Scottish Government, with the backing of the Scottish Parliament, has stated that no new nuclear power stations will be constructed in Scotland.[46][47] In March 2012, E.ON UK and RWE npower announced they would be pulling out of developing new nuclear power plants, placing the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom in doubt.[48]

There was an 11% increase in the use of nuclear power in 2011, which helped to bring greenhouse gas emissions down 7% on the previous year.[49]

Renewable energy[edit]

In 2007, the United Kingdom Government agreed to an overall European Union target of generating 20% of the European Union's energy supply from renewable sources by 2020. Each European Union member state was given its own allocated target; for the United Kingdom it is 15%. This was formalised in January 2009 with the passage of the EU Renewables Directive. As renewable heat and fuel production in the United Kingdom are at extremely low bases, RenewableUK estimates that this will require 35–40% of the United Kingdom's electricity to be generated from renewable sources by that date,[50] to be met largely by 33–35 GW of installed wind capacity.

The total of all renewable electricity sources provided for 14.9% of the electricity generated in the United Kingdom in 2013,[51] reaching 53.7 TWh of electricity generated.

Wind power[edit]

Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm

In December 2007, the United Kingdom Government announced plans for a massive expansion of wind energy production, by conducting a Strategic Environmental Assessment of up to 25 GW worth of wind farm offshore sites in preparation for a new round of development. These proposed sites were in addition to the 8 GW worth of sites already awarded in the 2 earlier rounds of site allocations, Round 1 in 2001 and Round 2 in 2003. Taken together it was estimated that this would result in the construction of over 7,000 offshore wind turbines.[52]

Wind power delivers a growing fraction of the energy in the United Kingdom and at the beginning of January 2015, wind power in the United Kingdom consisted of 5,958 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of just under 12 gigawatts: 7,950 megawatts of onshore capacity and 4,049 megawatts of offshore capacity.[53]


Solar panels on the BedZED development in the London Borough of Sutton

At the end of 2011, there were 230,000 solar power projects in the United Kingdom,[54] with a total installed generating capacity of 750 megawatts (MW).[55] By February 2012 the installed capacity had reached 1,000 MW.[56] Solar power use has increased very rapidly in recent years, albeit from a small base, as a result of reductions in the cost of photovoltaic (PV) panels, and the introduction of a Feed-in tariff (FIT) subsidy in April 2010.[54] In 2012, the government said that 4 million homes across the UK will be powered by the sun within eight years,[57] representing 22,000 MW of installed solar power capacity by 2020.[54]


Gas from sewage and landfill (biogas) has already been exploited in some areas. In 2004 it provided 129.3 GW·h (up 690% from 1990 levels), and was the UK's leading renewable energy source, representing 39.4% of all renewable energy produced (including hydro).[58] The UK has committed to a target of 10.3% of renewable energy in transport to comply with the Renewable Energy Directive of the European Union but has not yet implemented legislation to meet this target.

Other biofuels can provide a close-to-carbon-neutral energy source, if locally grown. In South America and Asia, the production of biofuels for export has in some cases resulted in significant ecological damage, including the clearing of rainforest. In 2004 biofuels provided 105.9 GW·h, 38% of it wood. This represented an increase of 500% from 1990.[59]

Geothermal power[edit]

Investigations into the exploitation of Geothermal power in the United Kingdom, prompted by the 1973 oil crisis, were abandoned as fuel prices fell. Only one scheme is operational, in Southampton. In 2004 it was announced that a further scheme would be built to heat the UK's first geothermal energy model village near Eastgate, County Durham.[60]


The Dinorwig Power Station lower reservoir, a 1,800 MW pumped-storage hydroelectric scheme, in north Wales, and the largest hydroelectric power station in the UK

As of 2012, hydroelectric power stations in the United Kingdom accounted for 1.67 GW of installed electrical generating capacity, being 1.9% of the UK's total generating capacity and 14% of UK's renewable energy generating capacity. Annual electricity production from such schemes is approximately 5,700 GWh, being about 1.5% of the UK's total electricity production.[61]

There are also pumped-storage power stations in the UK. These power stations are net consumers of electrical energy however they contribute to balancing the grid, which can facilitate renewable generation elsewhere, for example by 'soaking up' surplus renewable output at off-peak times and release the energy when it is required.


Combined heat and power plants, where 'waste' hot water from generating is used for district heating, are also a well tried technology in other parts of Europe. While it heats about 50% of all houses in Denmark, Finland, Poland, Sweden and Slovakia, it currently only plays a small role in the United Kingdom. It has, however, been rising, with total generation standing at 27.9 TWh by 2008. This consisted of 1,439 predominantly gas-fired schemes with a total CHP electrical generating capacity of 5.47 GW, and contributing 7% of the UK's electricity supply.[21] Heat generation utilisation has fallen however from a peak of 65 TWh in 1991 to 49 TWh in 2012.

Energy research[edit]

Historically, public sector support for energy research and development in the United Kingdom has been provided by a variety of bodies with little co-ordination between them. Problems experienced have included poor continuity of funding, and the availability of funding for certain parts of the research—development—commercialisation process but not others. Levels of public funding have also been low by international standards, and funding by the private sector has also been limited.

Research in the area of energy is carried out by a number of public and private sector bodies:

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funds an energy programme[62] spanning energy and climate change research. It aims to "develop, embrace and exploit sustainable, low carbon and/or energy efficient technologies and systems" to enable the United Kingdom "to meet the Government’s energy and environmental targets by 2020". Its research includes renewable, conventional, nuclear and fusion electricity supply as well as energy efficiency, fuel poverty and other topics.

Since being established in 2004, the UK Energy Research Centre[63] carries out research into demand reduction, future sources of energy, infrastructure and supply, energy systems, sustainability and materials for advanced energy systems.

The Energy Technologies Institute, expected to begin operating in 2008, is to 'accelerate the development of secure, reliable and cost-effective low-carbon energy technologies towards commercial deployment'.

In relation to buildings, the Building Research Establishment[64] carries out some research into energy conservation.

There is currently international research being conducted into fusion power. The ITER reactor is currently being constructed at Cadarache in France. The United Kingdom contributes towards this project through membership of the European Union. Prior to this, an experimental fusion reactor (the Joint European Torus) had been built at Culham in Oxfordshire.

Energy efficiency[edit]

The United Kingdom government has instituted several policies intended to promote an increase in efficient energy use. These include the roll out of smart meters, the Green Deal, the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme, the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme[65] and Climate Change Agreements.

In tackling the energy trilemma, saving energy is the cheapest of all measures. The Guardian newspaper reported that in 2012 that by 2050, Germany projects a 25% drop in electricity demand: the UK projects a rise of up to 66%. MP and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey pointed out in November 2012 that a modest 10% reduction in 2030 means five fewer power stations and £4bn cut from bills.[66]

The UK government has implemented measures aimed at cutting the UK's energy use by 11% by 2020. If achieved, this improvement would be sufficient to replace 22 UK power stations[citation needed], while possibly providing a boost to the economy and living standards.[67]

Climate change[edit]

The Committee on Climate Change publishes an annual progress report in respect to control the climate change in the United Kingdom.

See also[edit]


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  41. ^ Marion Brünglinghaus, ENS, European Nuclear Society. "Nuclear power plants, world-wide". Retrieved 2013-10-05. 
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  46. ^ "Answers to your questions on energy in Scotland". The Scottish Government. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 
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  49. ^ Vaughan, Adam (29 March 2012). "UK greenhouse gas emissions down 7% in 2011". The Guardian (London). 
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  53. ^ [1]. RenewableUK – UK Wind Energy Database (UKWED)
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  58. ^ DTI figures
  59. ^ (DTI figures)
  60. ^ 'Hot rocks' found at cement plant
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  62. ^ [2], Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
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  67. ^ Energy efficiency could replace 22 UK power stations Guardian 12 November 2012

External links[edit]

In the media