DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Environment

What does the UK's current energy mix look like today – and in the future?

Energy has been a hot topic since everyone's bills went through the roof, but the wider issue of divesting from fossil fuels means energy will be a talking point for a long time to come

Electric socket illustration

Illustration by Mateusz Napieralski

The terrifying spike in energy prices has switched us all on to thinking more about where the electricity we use comes from and why exactly it costs so much. If the UK is to seriously tackle the climate crisis, we need a renewables revolution. So what does our current energy mix look like, and what shifts are possible to make sure the power stays on but the cost to ourselves and the planet decreases?

How does the UK compare?

According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2020, renewables accounted for 43.8 per cent of the electricity generation mix in the UK. This is a significant increase from just 5.8 per cent in 2005. However, when compared to similar countries, the UK lags behind. For example, in 2020, renewables accounted for 68.5 per cent of electricity generation in Norway, 59.5 per cent in Sweden, 57.5 per cent in Austria, and 50.7 per cent in Portugal.

The UK’s reliance on fossil fuels is a legacy lingering from the industrial revolution which powered the development of the West. The good news is developing nations are skipping the heavy-polluting stage and embracing cleaner and more efficient energy production. For example, Kenya is the world leader in solar panels per capita – over 30,000 small panels are sold there each year for as little as $100. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of Costa Rica’s energy is produced by renewable energy. Even China, which releases over 30 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, is considered the world leader when it comes to renewables. It is expected to exceed its target of 33 per cent of energy generated by renewables by 2025.

Where electricity on the national grid came from in March 2023

In March 2023, forty-seven per cent of our power came from zero carbon sources (including nuclear). A new record was set on March 13, when 67.4 per cent of energy on the national grid came from wind. For the month of March 2023, here’s a breakdown of how the UK’s electricity supply was generated.

piechart of energy used in UK

How renewable energy production is evolving

In 2022, clean energy (renewables plus nuclear) produced 39 per cent of global electricity, while wind and solar produced 12 per cent of the global output. Compare this to 2018, when just 33.3 per cent came from renewables. In 2010, the figure was only seven per cent.

The price of renewable energy is rapidly falling, and solar costs have dropped globally by 90 per cent since 2009. 

Technologies are developing quickly. For example, floating offshore wind or combining solar panels with crop production. Developments in thin-film solar cells could make rooftop solar cheaper and easier. Plug-in balcony solar also opens up solar for flat owners and tenants. Rooftop wind is developing quickly too, with bladeless, so-called ‘motionless’ units being able to produce 50 per cent more energy than rooftop solar panels costing the same price.

And then there are heat pumps, which capture heat from the air or underground and bring it inside using a refrigerant to increase the pressure, while raising the temperature (this process uses less electricity than the equivalent that is then produced). There are now heat pumps on the market that match the temperature of gas boilers. 

The UK can easily provide all the energy it needs (including for transport, heating, and industry) through renewable energy.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

What are the drawbacks?

Technologies may not be developing quickly enough to catch up with the scale of the climate crisis.

  • Offshore wind takes time – they are massive turbines, and the installation is less easy than on land. The UK is aiming at 50GW by 2030, which is optimistic. But it is still cheaper than making electricity from gas. 
  • Onshore wind turbines can be constructed faster, but planning is effectively blocked in England and held up across other parts of the UK due to an old and under-invested electricity grid. 
  • Heat pump installations could be scaled up quickly. The UK is lagging behind other European countries, such as Norway where two-thirds of households have heat pumps, including all new houses. In Italy alone, 500,000 heat pump units were sold in 2022.

The speed of deployment is also about skills (particularly for heat pumps). As many countries aim for net zero, there will be constraints on availability because of manufacturing capacity and associated infrastructure. Policy and regulations need to be revised, for example, to make grants available to install greener technology.

What about the industries left behind?

Good news! The government is well on top of this. In 2020 they announced a new Green Jobs Taskforce with the ambition to support transition between existing industries and a low carbon economy. The plan promised two million green jobs by 2030. So that’s all in hand, brilliant.

Except, as The Big Issue found, there was no definition of what a ‘green job’ actually is. On top of that, of the 68,000 jobs the government claimed last year had been “created and supported” or were “in the pipeline”, thousands were apportioned to schemes which no longer exist. 

The latest figures on green jobs from the ONS only measure ‘green’ employment up to 2019, and show that there were 202,100 full-time jobs in the UK low-carbon and renewable energy economy prior to the pandemic. This figure is reduced from the 235,900 green jobs recorded in 2014.

There are retraining schemes for people from carbon-intensive industries, but this is seen as controversial by many. Unions are worried about members losing their jobs. And there is a geographical and class divide when it comes to who is impacted.

In some of Britain’s poorest areas, more than 40 per cent of jobs are in high-emitting industries, compared to less than 25 per cent in London. Over half of these jobs are concentrated in the Midlands, north of England and Scotland, where an estimated 10 million jobs could be threatened as the country aims for its 2050 net zero targets.

In response, Scotland’s new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, appointed Màiri McAllan to his cabinet as Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition, with a remit covering sustainable development, environmental protection, the low carbon economy and delivering green jobs for the future.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Labour's plan for the climate and nature: The good, the bad and the glaringly absent
Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner announce new grey belt Labour housebuilding plan
General election 2024

Labour's plan for the climate and nature: The good, the bad and the glaringly absent

Water companies paid shareholders £377 for every hour they pumped sewage into seas, study finds
Pollution

Water companies paid shareholders £377 for every hour they pumped sewage into seas, study finds

Billions added to British energy bills due to failure to properly insulate homes, study finds
More insulation for homes is part of the Government's fight against fuel poverty
Energy bills

Billions added to British energy bills due to failure to properly insulate homes, study finds

What is Labour's Great British Energy plan – and will it really bring down bills and ease cost of living?
Keir Starmer addressing a business conference in London, February 2024
Great British Energy

What is Labour's Great British Energy plan – and will it really bring down bills and ease cost of living?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know