The renewables record was set in the third quarter of this year after its share of the electricity mix rose to 40%.
It is the first time that electricity from British windfarms, solar panels and renewable biomass plants has surpassed fossil fuels since the UK’s first power plant fired up in 1882.
The new milestone confirms predictions made by National Grid that 2019 will be the first year since the Industrial Revolution that zero-carbon electricity – renewables and nuclear – overtakes gas and coal-fired power.
British coal plants are shutting down ahead of a 2025 ban. By next spring just four coal plants will remain in the UK: the West Burton A and Ratcliffe-on-Soar plants in Nottinghamshire, Kilroot in Northern Ireland and two generation units at the Drax site in North Yorkshire, which are earmarked for conversion to burn gas.
Gas-fired power makes up the bulk of the dwindling share of fossil fuels in the energy system at 38%. Nuclear power provided slightly less than a fifth of the UK’s electricity in the last quarter, the report said.
Wind power is the UK’s strongest source of renewable energy and made up 20% of the UK’s electricity following a series of major windfarm openings in recent years. Electricity from renewable biomass plants made up 12% of the energy system, while solar panels contributed 6%.
The world’s largest offshore windfarm, the Hornsea One project, began generating electricity off the Yorkshire coast in February, reaching a peak capacity of 1,200MW in October. It followed the opening of the Beatrice windfarm off the north-east coast of Scotland over the summer.
Together these schemes almost doubled the 2,100MW worth of offshore capacity which began powering homes in 2018.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the minister for energy and clean growth, said the renewables record is “yet another milestone on our path towards ending our contribution to climate change altogether by 2050”.
He said: “Already, we’ve cut emissions by 40% while growing the economy by two thirds since 1990. Now, with more offshore wind projects on the way at record low prices we plan to go even further and faster in the years to come.”
Luke Clark, of Renewable UK, said the industry hopes to treble the size of its offshore wind sector by 2030 to generate more than a third of the UK’s electricity.
Under the Labour party’s plans for Green Industrial Revolution the offshore wind industry would grow five-fold in a decade, with the addition of an extra 37 giant offshore windfarms and 70,000 new jobs.
According to Renewable UK, the growth of the renewables industry is good news for energy bills, as well as the environment, due to the steep fall in the cost of wind and solar power technologies over recent years.
“The cost of new offshore wind projects, for example, has just fallen to an all-time low, making onshore and offshore wind our lowest-cost large scale power sources,” Clark said.
The next generation of offshore windfarms is expected to cost about £40 for every megawatt hour of electricity generated, less than the average market price for electricity on the wholesale energy markets.
“If government were to back a range of technologies – like onshore wind and marine renewables – in the same way as it is backing offshore wind, consumers and businesses would be able to fully reap the benefits of the transition to a low carbon economy,” Clark said.
• This article was amended on 14 October 2019 because an earlier version said the Hornsea One project was off the Norfolk coast, when the Yorkshire coast was meant. This has been corrected.
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