The Energy System of the United Kingdom

Although generation of electricity from coal plummeted, and CO2 emissions from fossil fuels declined by 30% between 2008 and 2018, the carbon intensity of the UK’s energy supply (the quantity of carbon emitted per unit of energy supplied), has lowered only to world average.

Fossil fuels accounted for 76% of the UK’s energy supply in 2017, and 45% of electricity generation in 2018. IEA data shows biofuels generated 8% of the UK’s electricity in 2017, and is not entirely carbon-neutral.

The concepts presented here are explained in the post Energy Accounting.

CO₂ Emissions

Chart 1.(a) The UK’s annual fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Data: BP(2019).1 (b) The UK’s fossil fuel CO2 emissions by source from 1959 to 2018. Data: Global Carbon Project.2 Flaring emission data only shown for years 2000 to 2018.

Primary Energy Supply

Chart 2. UK’s primary energy supply, 1990 to 2018. RH-most shaded bars indicate years 2017 and 2018.Data: BP(2019).1 3 4
Chart 3. UK’s primary energy supply, 1990 to 2018, expanded. RH-most shaded bars indicate years 2017 and 2018. Data: BP(2019).1 3 4
Chart 4. UK’s primary energy supply by share in 2017. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5 This dataset is the only available that shows all energy sources.
UK sources of gas.6
Chart 5. UK’s primary energy supply by share of fuel. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5
Table 1. Numerical values of the UK’s primary energy supply. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5 Dashes indicate negligible or zero values.

Consumption of biofuels results in false carbon accountancy.4 The UK is the world’s largest importer of biofuel wood pellets,7 and emissions from burning biofuels is reported in the land-use sector only, not the energy sector, and only by the country supplying the biofuel. Furthermore, countries such as US, Canada and Russia which are all significant exporters of biofuels, do not account for the carbon emissions of biofuels.4 By converting coal fired power station furnaces to instead burn biofuels, as has been done in 4 of the 6 units of Drax power station (the largest in the UK)8 and then importing the biofuel from the US, the UK government has literally been able to omit these emissions from its tally, and now are not tallied in any country at all. The map below from Drax shows their biofuel supply operations in the US.

In 2017, the UK imported over a quarter of its biofuel, 9 and 4 million tonnes of wood pellets was exported from the US to the UK.10 Currently 20 thousand tonnes arrives daily.11. As shown further below, 8% of the UK’s electricity in 2017 was generated by biofuels, 62% of which was generated by combusting ‘plant biomass’,12 which is a general term encompassing wood pellets. This equates to 5% of the UK’s total electricity generation.13

Drax power station.14

A measure of carbonisation is the carbon intensity of primary energy supply, which is the mass of carbon dioxide emitted per Joule of supplied energy. This is shown below for the UK, the world and other countries discussed on this site. This calculation depends on reported CO2 emissions that omit emissions from bioenergy, so actual values of the UK’s carbon intensity will be slightly higher.

Chart 6. Carbon intensity of primary energy supply. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5

Energy Consumption

Chart 7. UK’s energy consumption (Total Final Consumption, TFC) by share in 2017, showing electricity generation. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5
The dashed segment in the left hand most pie chart represents the equivalent share of electricity if the quantity produced in 2017 was produced within a 100% wind/water/solar (WWS) energy system, serving to demonstrate the remaining change needed for full electrification. The 21.6% in 2017 equates to 50.3% under WWS, as shown. The share of electricity becomes greater because total energy consumption of a 100% WWS system reduces to 42.9% of business-as-usual.15 16
This is due to: (a) using heat pumps for building heat; (b) using electricity for industrial heat; (c) using battery and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; (d) eliminating mining, transportation and processing of fuels, and (e) efficiency improvements.
Also note: (i) Non-energy use of energy sources excluded (e.g. oil used for lubrication); (ii) Transport & Distribution Losses include gas distribution, electricity transmission, and coal transport, and (iii) Examples of Electricity Industry Own-Use include energy consumed in coal mines, own consumption in power plants and energy used for oil and gas extraction.17
Chart 8. UK’s energy consumption (TFC) by: (a) Energy source; (b) Economic sector. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5
Chart 9. Energy consumption (TFC) in economic sectors. Note: The transport sector includes rail and aviation. Gridlines removed for clarity. Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5

Electricity

Chart 10. Electricity generation in the UK, 2018. Data: BP(2019).1 3 4

The diversity of the UK’s electricity generation technology is broad, consisting in 2018 of 1,085 seperate generators with a total capacity of 79.4GW,18 and an additional 17.5GW of overseas electricity interconnectors planned, of which 5GW is now operational. The planned total capacity of the interconnectors will be equivalent to 22% of the UK’s total capacity, and when complete, the UK’s grid will be connected to that in Norway, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Ireland.

UK overseas electricity interconnectors showing operating (5GW), under construction (3.4GW) and planned (9.1GW).19 Total interconnector capacity is planned to be 17.5GW. In comparison, this is 22% of total installed electricity capacity in the UK in 2018 of 79.4GW.20
Chart 11. UK electricity generation by fuel as share of total generation (i.e production). Data: Calculated using IEA(2019) online free version.5

The total installed capacity of wind electricity generation in 2018 was 8.9GW onshore and 7GW offshore,21 and generated 17% of electricity consumed in the UK in 2017

Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm22 23

As shown above, for about the past three decades nuclear energy has accounted for about 9% of the UK’s energy supply and 20% of electricity.

Worldwide there are 449 nuclear reactors,24 and in 2018 nuclear power stations produced 10% of the world’s electricity.1

The UK established the world’s first civil nuclear programme25 and has fifteen operational nuclear reactors.26 All but one are planned to be closed by 2030, with eleven before 2025. One nuclear power station, known as Hinkley Point C,27 is being constructed at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Also at this location are the disused Hinkley Point A28 and still operational Hinkley Point B29 nuclear power stations. Hinkley Point C is being constructed by Électricité de France (EDF), 83% owned by the French government. China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), a state-run Chinese energy company, took a 33.5% stake in the project. It will be the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK in almost 20 years and will provide about 7% of the country’s electricity.30

View east from Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, towards the Somerset coast. Hinkley Point is visible in the distance.31

Hinkley Point C is a third generation (‘generation three’)32 pressurised light water reactor (PWR) design known as a European Pressurised Reactor, or Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR).33 Generation three designs of nuclear power stations include developments of generation two nuclear reactors that were built up to the late 1990s. These developments include (i) improved fuel technology, (ii) longer operating life, (iii) improved thermal efficiency, (iv) significantly enhanced safety systems (including passive nuclear safety), and (v) standardised designs for reduced costs.32

Hinkley Point C will consist of two EPR reactors each with a capacity of 1,600 MW. Taishan 1 in China was the first EPR to begin operation, in June 2018.34 Three other commercial EPR units currently being built: Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant in France, and Taishan2 in China.

Chart 12. Electricity generation in the UK, years 2017 & 2018. Data: BP(2019).1 3 4 35
Chart 13. Electricity generation in the UK, expanded, years 2017 & 2018. Data: BP(2019).1 3 4 35
  1. https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html()()()()()()()
  2. http://folk.uio.no/roberan/GCB2019.shtml()
  3. Note: (i) BP’s definition of Renewables is energy supplied by Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Solid Biofuels & ‘Other’; (ii) BP does not fully account for biofuels; and (iii) Solid biofuels may not be carbon-neutral.()()()()()
  4. https://www.worldenergydata.org/biofuels/()()()()()()()
  5. https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/data-tables?country=UK&energy=Balances&year=2017()()()()()()()()
  6. British Gas, https://www.britishgas.co.uk/the-source/our-world-of-energy/energys-grand-journey/where-does-uk-gas-come-from()
  7. https://www.carbonbrief.org/investigation-does-the-uks-biomass-burning-help-solve-climate-change()
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_power_stations_in_England()
  9. p33, https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Biomass-in-a-low-carbon-economy-CCC-2018.pdf()
  10. https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-06-20/uk-s-move-away-coal-means-they-re-burning-wood-us()
  11. https://www.drax.com/technology/5-incredible-numbers-worlds-largest-biomass-port/, 20 thousand tonnes/day × 5 days/week × 52 weeks/year = 5.2 million tonnes/year()
  12. 19,838/31,778 =  62%, Capacity of, and electricity generated from, renewable sources (DUKES 6.4), https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/renewable-sources-of-energy-chapter-6-digest-of-united-kingdom-energy-statistics-dukes()
  13. 62% of 8% is 5%()
  14. Photo by Harkey Lodger, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Harkey_Lodger, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Draxps.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0.()
  15. 8.7/20.3 = 42.9%, https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/TimelineDetailed.pdf()
  16. https://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CombiningRenew/WorldGridIntegration.pdf()
  17. https://www.iea.org/statistics/resources/balancedefinitions/()
  18. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/731591/DUKES_5.11.xls()
  19. https://www.drax.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-Q1-4-neighbours-new.png()
  20. para 5.54, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/736152/Ch5.pdf()
  21. Database page, sorted by installed capacity, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/731591/DUKES_5.11.xls()
  22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheringham_Shoal_Offshore_Wind_Farm()
  23. Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nhd-info/8033151828/in/photostream/()
  24. https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/OperationalReactorsByType.aspx()
  25. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_the_United_Kingdom()
  26. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_reactors#United_Kingdom()
  27. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinkley_Point_C_nuclear_power_station()
  28. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinkley_Point_A_nuclear_power_station()
  29. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinkley_Point_B_Nuclear_Power_Station()
  30. http://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Hinkley-Point-C-cost-rises-by-nearly-15()
  31. Photo by Nilfanion, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hinkley_from_Dunkery.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0.()
  32. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_III_reactor()()
  33. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPR_(nuclear_reactor)()
  34. http://www.globalconstructionreview.com/news/after-pain-olkiluoto-and-flamanville-worlds-first-/()
  35. About half of the electricity in the UK from non-hydro renewables is generated by biofuels, two-thirds of which is from plant-biomass, as explained above in Primary Energy Supply.()()