Guy Martin – Isle of Man TT racing legend, former motorcycle racer, writer and television presenter – has recently opened our eyes to the story of the UK’s energy system with his latest Channel 4 programme ‘Guy Martin’s Great British Power Trip’
A self-confessed energy enthusiast and inventor, Guy’s new programme takes the viewer on a journey through the various types of energy production in the UK, exposing the unfathomable infrastructure requirements for the current state of play and an indicator of some of the financial investment being made to meet growing demands.
Guy exposes the gargantuan effort it takes to keep the UK supplied with continuous energy and the colossal logistical efforts involved with balancing the National Grid.
The facts and figures presented by the Channel 4 programme were not only staggering, but they were a complete eye opener to millions of end users and went some way to explain why our energy costs have not only increased dramatically, but will continue to increase.
Guy took the viewer on a journey through all layers of the UK’s energy infrastructure, from gas, to nuclear, to electricity, to coal, renewables and beyond. In this article we will focus on how renewables are creating a real impact on the National Grid and how Hydrogen will be playing more of a part in our energy production in the future.
Renewable power sources generated 40% of Britain’s electricity in 2022, up from 35% in 2021. However, what does that look like when it is broken down into it’s constituent parts namely Solar, Wind, Hydroelectric and Bioenergy?
Solar energy does not make much of a contribution to the UK’s energy mix and it only accounts for approximately 6.8% of the renewable energy share of electricity. For example, in the last quarter of 2021, Solar power only contributed 1.8% to the renewable mix in the UK (1)
Harnessing the energy of the sun is not a new concept and in recent years to combat the increase in energy costs, the sale of domestic solar panels has increased steadily.
In 2008, solar panels accounted for just one MW of electricity generation in England and yet by 2020, they were responsible for an astonishing 11,730 megawatts throughout the country.
There are now estimated to be 1.2 million homes in the UK who have installed solar panels, meaning that 4.1% of the 29 million homes in the UK are generating electricity from solar panels.
In the last quarter of 2021 wind power contributed 26.1% of the UK’s total electricity generation, with onshore and offshore wind contributing 12% and 14% respectively. (1)
Hornsea 2 off the Yorkshire coast in the North Sea, the world’s largest offshore wind farm; became fully operational in August 2022 and can generate enough electricity to power approximately 1.4 million homes.
To increase energy production from offshore wind, the UK Government has plans to increase offshore wind’s output from 11 GW to 50 GW by 2030 and are providing £200 million worth of financial support and investment to reach that target.
Bioenergy, being sourced from biomass, is a perfect example of circular power generation. The carbon released by generating bioenergy has already been absorbed once through the photosynthesis process, making modern bioenergy (properly managed) a promising near zero-emission fuel.
Therefore, how much does the bioenergy sector contribute the UK renewables market? The National Grid reported that in the last quarter of 2021, Bioenergy contributed 12.7% to the overall renewables mix in the UK. (1)
In recognition of the part bioenergy has to play in decarbonising the energy system, the boost the bioenergy sector needed came in August 22 when innovative biomass projects across the UK were awarded £37 million in funding, as the UK Government drives forward its plan to scale up domestic renewable energy, including from biomass. (6)
Increasing the growth of elephant grass (miscanthus), farming seaweed off the North Yorkshire coast, and increasing the harvesting capacity for willow are among 12 projects receiving a share of £32 million funding under Phase 2 of the Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, which aims to find new ways to increase biomass production in the UK. (6)
As the UK is surrounded by the sea, energy sourced from tidal water motion seems like a natural option and as of 2021 the United Kingdom was home to 1,576 hydropower plants.
Therefore, what does the UK’s ability to produce energy from tidal sources look like? At present 30% to 40% of the UK’s overall renewable generation is provided by hydropower (2) and in the last quarter of 2021, Hydropower, including tidal, contributed 2.1% to the renewable mix. (1)
As with all renewables, one of the challenges related to infrastructure is based around the storage of energy from a natural and perpetual source.
However, in November 22 the UK Government announced that £32 million of funding had been awarded to UK projects developing cutting-edge innovative energy storage technologies that can help increase the resilience of the UK’s electricity grid and support renewable energy storage.
Five projects based across the UK have benefitted from a share of over £32 million in the second phase of the Longer Duration Energy Storage (LODES) competition, to help develop technologies that can store energy as heat, electricity or as a low-carbon energy carrier like hydrogen. (3)
RheEnergise Ltd have received £8.24 million to build a demonstrator near Plymouth of their ‘High-Density Hydro®’ pumped energy storage system. (3)
The system uses an environmentally safe mineral-rich fluid more than two and half times denser than water, to create electricity from gentle slopes, without requiring steep dam walls or high mountains like traditional hydropower. (3)
The project will use surplus electricity to pump the fluid uphill, then later when electricity is needed by the grid, the fluid will be released back down the hill through turbines to generate electricity. (3)
The UK Hydrogen Strategy recognises that low carbon hydrogen can play a key role in decarbonising the UK energy provision, potentially becoming comparable in scale to existing electricity use by 2050.
The UK Government plans to expand the renewables market, makes hydrogen especially important as excess renewable electricity can be used to produce hydrogen, Hydrogen can then be stored and used to generate electricity when there is less renewable energy production from solar or wind due to the unpredictable nature of the weather.
Despite the grandeur schemes of the UK Government as part of their Hydrogen Strategy, there are some innovators who are already reaping the benefits of Hydrogen as part of a renewable, sustainable and perpetual energy source.
Hydrogen in the Orkney Islands.
One of the innovative energy facilities Guy Martin visited as part of his ‘Great British Power Trip’ was on The Orkney Islands.
Grid capacity constraints in Orkney mean that renewable energy created there is often lost or wasted. Now, new projects involving the production of hydrogen could be the answer to the capacity issue. (5)
Excess electricity can be used to create hydrogen through electrolysis, meaning surplus renewable energy can be stored and used to produce heat, power or fuel for low carbon transport in the future. (5)
The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) installed a hydrogen production plan at its onshore site in Eday in 2016. This creates hydrogen from excess energy produced by the tidal energy converters testing offshore at its Fall of Warness site and from the island’s community wind turbine. (5)
This ‘green’ hydrogen is stored in special mobile units and transported to the Orkney mainland where it can then be used on-demand in variety of ways, including powering harbour and ferry operations in Kirkwall. (5)
The hydrogen produced can be used for buildings and vessels in Kirkwall harbour, as well as fuel for a number of hydrogen vehicles in Orkney Islands Council’s fleet. (5)
However, this is not the end of the Orkney’s plans for developing their own Hydrogen economy, with projects into hydrogen as a fuel in marine transport, in aviation and even the possibility of supporting gin production; the Orkney Islands ahead of the curve in Hydrogen innovation and adoption.
The renewable energy provision in the UK is pivotal to the UK’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, with the government setting energy providers a target for all electricity to come from 100% zero-carbon generation by 2035.
Written and cited by Katy-Jane Mason for and on behalf of Dolphin N2.