Guide to electricity production in Britain
Our everyday lives are dependent on electricity – you wake up to the sound of your alarm on your phone, you boil the kettle for the tea round at work, before getting home and watching your favourite show on your television.
But how many of us really know where this energy comes from, or how it is produced?
Britain produces its electricity from a number of sources including renewable energy resources, nuclear, gas, coal and oil. Having multiple sources means that we are not utterly dependent on one supply, which can be unsustainable and poses a risk should problems develop.
Sara Crane, from the Nuclear Industry Association told us about the production of nuclear power in the UK:
“The UK has a diverse energy supply with more than half of it coming from low carbon sources. Nuclear produces around 21% of the electricity we use from eight power stations across the UK. The power generated by existing power stations avoids the emissions of 49 million tonnes of CO₂ a year – the equivalent of taking 78% of Britain’s cars off the roads.”
Here we will guide you through electricity production in Britain, from all of the main sources both on our shores and abroad.
The grid carries electricity across the country from the power stations into the cables and wires in your home. High voltage wires are required to transfer the wire directly from the grid, as the power is too strong for our homes and businesses, to substations where it is then transferred into lower voltage before entering local distribution.
Electricity is extremely difficult to store, so the grid is vitally important, so it keeps the balance between supply and demand.
It is the National Grid that manages the flow across the entire network, but there is also the Scottish Power Transmission, Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Limited and Northern Ireland Electricity .
There are three main steps to ensure our homes receive electricity.
Large power stations that are linked to the national transmission network generate the majority of Britain’s electricity. Elsewhere, it can also be created by the smaller power stations that are connected to their regional distribution networks.
The electricity network is broken into two types: transmission and distribution. The transmission networks use high voltage lines to carry electricity across long distances. It is distributed throughout the country by regional transmission companies in a system controlled by a single System Operator (SO) performed by the National Grid Electricity Transmission (NGET), responsible for ensuring a stable and secure nationwide operation.
The final process is energy supply. This comes from suppliers buying energy from a wholesale market, before selling it on to their customers. Energy supply is ultimately the process of the consumer choosing which company they wish to use.
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy released its Statistical Press Release on UK Energy Statistics . It showed that in 2016 nuclear power accounted for 23.8 per cent of electricity supplied, which is up from 23.0 per cent in 2015.
There are big changes in the nuclear power sector at the moment, as Sara Crane explained:
“All but one of the stations which currently operate in the UK will retire by 2030 and begin the decommissioning process. This is why the UK is embarking on a nuclear new build programme, beginning with Hinkley Point C, to replace the generation capacity we will lose. Further projects in Wales, Cumbria, Suffolk, Gloucestershire and Essex are in the planning stages.”
Despite the decommissioning process, it is expected that we will see new reactors and processes being used by 2018.
Nuclear power creates electricity using their reactors, which split uranium atoms to produce heat in a process known as fission.
Nuclear reactors actually date back over two billion years ago, when they were operating naturally in uranium deposits in what is now Gabon.
Using natural energy to make electricity, renewable technologies source wind, biomass, solar, marine, hydro and wave energy.
In 2015, 25 per cent of Britain’s electricity was created by renewable energy. This figure is set to rise to meet the EU target of 30 per cent by 2020.
The UK Energy Statistics showed that renewable energy production rose by 2.3 per cent in 2016.
An article published by The Guardian revealed that 46 per cent of electricity produced in the UK was by clean energy sources back in 2015.
It was the first time that renewable energy had outstripped coal, while there were also increases in numbers from offshore wind turbines and solar panels. Clean energy has certainly been carrying the slack left behind by fossil fuels, which are being ushered out.
Wind turbines are the main source of wind energy. Turned by the wind, the blades of the turbine power an electric generator which then goes on to power an electric current.
Think of them as the opposite of a fan. Wind turbines use wind power to generate energy, when fans are powered by electricity to create wind.
These turbines come in many forms, and this ultimately determines the power output created. As you drive through the countryside you may see a small-sized turbine in a garden or nearby field – these will offer enough power to sustain the needs of a home or small business.
The largest ones are capable of powering around 1,400 homes.
Hydropower is the oldest method of harnessing clean power, with examples being waterwheels like the ones you see at old mills which can date back over 2,000 years.
Currently the world leader for producing renewable energy, it supports 90 per cent of the world’s renewable power.
Widely used for its inexpensive resources, it is the only way to store large quantities of energy in an environmentally-conscious manner thanks to reservoirs and pumped storage schemes.
Wave energy comes in two forms: onshore and offshore.
Onshore wave power is a result of waves reaching the coast and rising when the water levels become shallower making them crash on top of itself. Devices are fixed to the coastline and create power from the waves breaking near them, trapping air into a chamber which then generates electricity.
Offshore power comes from floating devices that made up of large tubes of metal on top of the waters’ surface. Fixed in place by cables attached to the sea bed, the tubes move upwards from swells passing beneath them, forcing the tube connected to move downwards. This movement is repeated with the waves producing more and more electricity which is transferred to shore via cables on the seabed.
The UK is among the best wave power sites in the world, thanks to it being an island and the turbulent weather of the North Sea and Atlantic.
A fixed device off the coast of Islay in Scotland called Land Installed Marine Powered Energy Transformer (LIMPET), produces enough electricity for 350 homes.
Without solar energy, life simply could not exist on earth. It is a very powerful and freely available source of energy, creating energy and electricity directly from the sun.
The solar cells in solar panels convert the sun’s power into electricity for use in your home or business. It comes in two forms: solar thermal and photovoltaic (PV).
In solar thermal, the panels transfer the sun’s energy into heating water that is then used when washing or heating. While PV panels turn the energy directly into electricity using its photovoltaic effect.
It may be a surprise to learn that that the UK imports close to 60 per cent of its energy, with resources coming from the likes of Norway, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The amount of imports are at a similar level to the figures back in the 1970s, but things are changing. The quiet revolution of renewables has seen it become the second biggest source of electricity in the UK, with nearly 50 percent of home-produced energy coming from renewable sources.
Given the abundance of Britain’s natural resources and development of the energy sector and energy jobs , our reliance on imports could easily continue to diminish.