Public support for renewables hits record high as clean transition powers forward

Wind turbines

The tide is turning on the coal industry with huge public support for renewable alternatives. 

Public support for renewables in the UK has hit record high levels while fracking remains unpopular. The news comes in the same week that the country had its longest coal-free period of power generation in modern history, reports JOSEPH DUTTON

Just three percent of the population are opposed to renewables.

A staggering 85 percent of people in the UK support renewable energy, with just three percent opposed to it, according to data published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) in its quarterly public attitudes tracker.

This is the highest level of support since the tracker began in July 2012, and the joint-lowest figure for people against. The number of people who ‘strongly support’ the use of renewables also hit a record high of 37 percent.

Support was highest for solar generation with 87 percent of people in favour of it, ahead of offshore wind (83 percent), wave and tidal (81 percent), and onshore wind (76 percent) – with all being record highs since the first tracker in 2012. No renewable technology had a disapproval level above the eight percent against onshore wind.

Power generation

The release of the data coincides with the UK power generation being coal-free for a record 76 hours across 21 April to 24 April, setting a new record. This came only a week after the UK had 54 coal-free hours – itself a new record at the time. A shorter but equally impressive 40 hours of coal-free electricity generation was also recorded across 25-26 April.

Unseasonably warm temperatures this month pushed down demand for heating, which in turn lowered electricity demand. And the sunny and windy weather saw electricity from wind and solar providing over 30 percent of electricity in the 21 April-24 April coal-fee period.

The trend is set to continue heading in to the summer. System operator National Grid expects electricity production from renewables through the summer months to significantly reduce both gas and coal fired power generation.

Electricity needed from power stations connected to the transmission network – typically gas, coal and nuclear – is forecast to be more than 10 percent lower this summer year compared to 2015 because of solar and other renewables.

The government has set a target of October 2025 for removing unabated coal-fired power generation from the electricity system, meaning the importance of electricity from renewables is going to increase. It will also have to grow to ensure the UK meets its targets of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 compared to levels in 1990.

Just three percent of the population are opposed to renewables.

Energy security

The BEIS public attitude tracker also showed support for fracking edged higher to 18 percent from 16 percent in the previous tracker in February. But this remains someway below a total of 35 percent opposed to it. Opposition to fracking has been higher than support for it on every tracker since the spring of 2014.

Pro-fracking industry group UK Onshore Operator’s Group (UKOOG) released a statement welcoming the increase, saying it showed a growing concern among the public that the UK is too reliant on other countries for its energy, with the cold weather earlier this year and arrival of Russian LNG driving the change.

For those who do support fracking, reducing the UK’s dependence on imported energy is the biggest factor, ahead of others such as cheaper bills, economic growth, and jobs.

The attitude tracker reported that 60 percent of people are concerned about the UK’s energy security – 10pp higher than the last tracker – with 57 percent of people most concerned about gas.

But this has not translated directly translated in to support growth for fracking. Support for renewables grew by 8pp, compared to just 2pp for fracking, suggesting people are rapidly making the link between the development renewables and improving energy security.

The record levels of popularity for renewables reflects the strength of support there is behind the government’s policies on decarbonisation and phase out of coal.

But at the same time, the popularity goes in the face of government decisions to cut support for solar and onshore wind. And despite the slight rise in support for fracking, the sector has a long way to go before it has anything resembling the social licence it needs to operate in the UK. 

This Author

Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. He tweets at @JDuttonUK.

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