Last updated: 29 January 2021
In this guide you’ll discover:
Where does my energy come from?
How do I find out where energy comes from
Can I choose where my electricity comes from?
What kinds of power plants are there?
Renewable energy providers
How to pick your electricity provider
These days, there’s a mind-boggling number of ways in which energy is generated, and it’s shifting all the time as more renewable sources come online.
Back in 1998, nearly two-thirds of Britain’s electricity was generated using fossil fuels (coal, oil, or gas), with nuclear contributing a further quarter. Renewables – hydro, wind and solar – contributed a measly 2% between them. In 2016, fossil fuels still generated over half of the UK’s electricity.
Fast forward to the middle of 2020, and the picture has changed dramatically: now, renewables (primarily wind power, but also hydro, solar and biomass) account for 42% of all electricity generated, with fossil fuels contributing just 23% and nuclear 11%. At certain times during 2020, renewables were generating over half of all Britain’s electricity.
In addition to domestic generation, the UK imports a small amount of electricity – around 4% from France, the Netherlands and Ireland – when prices are economical.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact source of the electricity that comes into your own home unless you have your own renewable energy source such as solar panels or a wind turbine. Energy suppliers source their own energy supplies from multiple places, both from their own power plants and from further afield.
Ultimately, though, energy doesn’t make its way directly into your home from your supplier’s sources – once it’s been produced and converted to electricity as we know it, it’s fed into the national grid at point of origin where it’s mixed with other sources and then distributed to customers.
To increase transparency, energy suppliers publish the composition of fuel mixes and the various sources of electricity they use and distribute to their customers online. These can differ from tariff to tariff so if you want a more comprehensive view of where your electricity comes from, your supplier’s website should be able to tell you.
You can’t select the source of your electricity in the literal sense of picking and choosing exactly what types of power plants generate each kWh of electricity you receive. However, you can use the fuel mix details offered by energy companies to find one that best suits your needs. The following table details the big six’s fuel mixes from April 2019-March 2020:
|Supplier||Renewable||Coal||Natural gas||Nuclear||Other fuels|
These figures provide a general idea of how each supplier generates or sources its energy, but it doesn’t reflect how individual tariffs work. For example, all EDF’s home electricity tariffs use electricity generated exclusively from the firm’s nuclear power stations, while ScottishPower now supplies 100% renewable electricity from its wind farms to all customers on its fixed-rate tariffs. Dig a little deeper into your current or chosen tariff, and you should be able to make an informed decision on where you want to receive your electricity from, instead of blindly choosing a provider.
Electricity is created in many ways, from traditional plants that burn fossil fuels to generate electricity to newer, modern, and cleaner plants that produce electricity from renewable sources such as wind, hydro and solar. But how do they work?
Historically, coal power plants were the primary source of electricity in the UK and remained a significant contributor well into the early 21st century. Coal is burned in giant furnaces and the energy produced is harnessed to generate electricity. It’s a major contributor to CO2 emissions, and as brands and customers alike move away from ‘dirty’ energy, less than five percent of the UK electricity still comes from coal plants.
Renewable energy comes in many forms and is now the most popular source of electricity, set to become the dominant contributor in the years to come. In the UK, wind power makes up most of the renewable energy harnessed, with huge turbines converting wind energy into electricity. Wind farms are situated both offshore and onshore to provide ever-cheaper energy as their popularity soars and technology improves. Along with wind power, hydroelectric power, where electricity is generated from a fast-paced stream of water, is expected to rise in popularity.
Bio energy, which extracts energy from organic materials, is another source for both electricity and gas. Because the extraction process often results in the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, bio energy is not as accepted as a source of renewable energy. Bio energy comes from wood burning, food waste and sewage, to name a few sources.
The natural gas and fossil fuels used in UK electricity, which make up the largest proportion of the UK’s energy consumption, is mostly produced in the UK or comes through underground pipelines from Europe. Electricity from natural gas is generated through the burning of the gases and harnessing the energy that they give off. While this type of production also gives off CO2 and other harmful emissions into the atmosphere, it’s less damaging than coal.
The current trend in the energy industry is finding new, innovative ways to become more environmentally conscious. Traditionally, the energy industry has been one of the most damaging industries for the environment.
If renewable energy is important to you, there’s a growing market segment in the UK energy industry that’s occupied by energy providers with an emphasis on environmentalism. Bulb Energy, Bristol Energy and OVO Energy are three of the top start-up energy providers, offering 100% renewable energy options to all their customers. These plans exclusively sell electricity drawn from renewable sources.
Part of the shift to renewable energy has been the opportunity for individuals to generate their own electricity, both for their own use and to sell back to the grid. Whether you have solar panels at your home or use a hydroelectric turbine in a stream or river, energy providers are offering to pay consumers if they produce their own electricity through the Feed-In Tariff program. Similar schemes exist for those looking to heat their homes more sustainably, specifically the Renewable Heat Incentive.
If the source of electricity is a key factor when choosing a company for your energy needs, check a company’s published fuel mix or check individual tariffs. If you’re unfazed by the use and production of nuclear power, then EDF Energy and – to a lesser degree – British Gas are reliable brands who’ve been in the market for a long time. However, those with environmental concerns will be pleased to learn that switching your tariff to one generated by 100% renewable electricity has never been easier.