The power distribution infrastructure in the UK is absolutely essential to maintaining the very essence of our way of life and needs to be as robust as possible in order to continue meeting the ever rising demand for power. To keep ahead of this challenge, the UK utilises a number of energy harnessing methods to keep our supplies largely uninterrupted and as reliable as they can be. As well as utilising multiple sources, the UK power grid is connected to main land Europe, via underwater cables, so that electricity can be directly imported or exported as required. The way that nations have typically produced power is changing, and in recent years and for a number of reasons, the rate of change has been accelerating.
What are the sources of energy?
For the past few years and in most of the western world, it seems as though the environment has become a leading priority as global warming and climate change are at the top of many government agendas. Carbon reduction and stemming the release of man made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are hugely important issues, with related stories being continuously reported throughout the media industry. Solar power, wind turbines and hydroelectricity are heralded as the future of power production and many projects of a grand scale are being established across the UK. With this in mind, it may be surprising to find out that fossil fuels still account for over half of the power produced in the UK. This is using a combination of mainly natural gas and to a much lesser extent, coal.
Natural gas is by far the biggest single source of power in the UK, standing at approximately 45%. Of this total, around 47% is imported through pipelines from mainland Europe (With around 40% of this being produced and supplied by Russia), and 9% is imported via sea freight from mainly the Gulf states. The remaining 44% is produced domestically from the oil fields situated in the North Sea and Irish Sea. Coal now only accounts for around 3% and as a method of producing large scale power, is likely to be consigned to the history books in the not too distant future.
These statistics are a concern for UK industry leaders and the government, as a heavy reliance on imported resources puts the UK in a weakened position. If the EU decided to ‘turn off the taps’ or severely restrict the flow of gas through the vast pipelines, the UK would be unable to meet the power demands and supplies would be cut off. To reduce any potential impact of this vulnerability, resources are being put into alternatives, but each have their own pros and cons.
Fracking, from a purely energy source perspective, was thought by many to be the answer to this problem. It is estimated that there could be as much as 4 trillion cubic metres of shale gas sitting beneath large parts of the North and middle of England. When consideration is given to the fact that the whole UK uses 85 Billion cubic metres per year, it is easy to see why this could be a valuable commodity. However, fracking, which is the currently used method of releasing the gas, has faced fierce condemnation from environmental groups and the general public. Earthquakes attributed to fracking operations have also not helped an already poor reputation amongst the British public.
The process of fission is responsible for around 20% of our electricity, harnessed at a number of mostly ageing nuclear power plants. Whilst nuclear power is generally considered as a green source of energy, it also suffers from a bad reputation owing to the immense damage that can be caused when the plants malfunction or because of the not so green nuclear waste that is produced. Although proposals are in place to replace at least some of the older nuclear power stations around the UK, plans have somewhat stalled in recent years and the future of nuclear power is far from clear.
Moving towards greener energy
Current trends are pointing in the direction of renewable and environmentally friendly methods of power production. Although solar is difficult to effectively harness on a grand scale in the UK, wind farms have been set up at ever increasing rates and hydroelectricity technology is getting better and better all the time. On the back of these successes are a number of new players to the UK energy industry that are marketing themselves as providing exclusively 100% renewable energy. This includes Octopus, Bulb and Ecotricity and would appear to be part of a growing number. The impact of the switch to wind power is best demonstrated in Scotland where currently 98% of all electricity is produced using wind turbines. This is a trend that is highly likely to continue as consumers are increasingly trying to make environmentally responsible decisions. This puts the green pioneers of the energy market in a strong position going forward, especially as traditional sources of energy become increasingly expensive.
With the current power production around the UK from wind turbines, and with leaps forward in hydrocelectric technology, it is impossible to not see the future of the UK’s power being based largely around these two renewable energy sources. Although cost, the unique challenges of getting maximum efficiency from renewables, and the undying argument surrounding the blighting of the country sides and coastlines by huge wind farms,it is unlikely that this trend will be reversed. The possible future advantages are just too tantalising to ignore, not least is the potential to reduce reliance on imports, reducing the carbon footprint of the UK and potentially providing lower energy bills to consumers.