Different types of renewable energy

Where does renewable energy come from? And how much of it are suppliers using? Are some sources better than others? And how to support renewables?

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy goes by many different names – green energy, sustainable energy, alternative energy and clean energy.

Energy that lasts

Essentially, they all mean the same thing. Energy from natural sources that won’t run out. Think sunlight, wind and water.

Fossil fuels aren’t renewable

In contrast, fossil fuels take millions of years to develop, and they’re a limited resource because we’re using them much faster than they’re being produced.

Burning fossil fuels produces the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). So we’re increasingly turning to renewable energy sources to generate more environmentally-friendly power.

We’re well above average

At British Gas we already get 56% of our electricity from environmentally friendly sources – the national average for suppliers is just 33%.

We’re also investing in the technology to harness more power from renewables. And like many UK suppliers, we offer our customers Green tariffs to help reduce their carbon footprint.

Want to do your bit?

Find out more about where your energy comes from and try our energy saving tips to help reduce your use.

Wind power

Wind power is electricity generated by turbines – either on land or out at sea. As the blades turn they spin a shaft connected to a generator, which creates an electric current.

Offshore wind farms

The UK is the world leader in wind farms based at sea. As a nation, we’re already generating enough electricity to power 4.5 million homes. And by 2020, it’s forecast that over 10% of our electricity will be generated this way.

Wind farms based on land

Onshore wind farms currently generate enough clean electricity to meet the needs of 7.25 million homes. That’s 9% of the UK’s power needs. Overall, wind power produces enough electricity to power the equivalent of 11.5 million UK homes.

Wind power – advantages and disadvantages

Offshore wind turbines rotate at faster, more consistent speeds so they can produce significantly more electricity than turbines on land.

High capacity, high cost

The downside is they’re more expensive to develop and to maintain. Onshore wind turbines are cheaper to build and to install, but they’re often unpopular with local communities.

Solar power

It might seem like sunny days are in short supply. But the UK actually gets about 13% of its electricity from solar energy. In fact, nearly half a million homes in the UK already have solar panels.

How sunlight creates electricity

When sun hits the silicon, it causes a voltage difference across the solar panel.

That voltage acts a bit like pressure in a hose, and forces electrons to flow, creating an electric current that can be converted to AC and delivered to the National Grid.

Solar power – advantages and disadvantages

Right now, panels on people’s roofs are the biggest source of solar energy in the UK. But, more and more solar panels are being fitted on offices, schools, churches, farms and train stations.

Financial incentives are ending

The government has encouraged homeowners to generate electricity for the National Grid, with ‘feed-in tariffs’. But these generous schemes are now closed to new members. So the number of people fitting solar panels will inevitably drop off.

In better news, the development of battery technology means that people can now start making and storing their own electricity – and using it to power their own homes.

Could batteries help solar?

As solar panels become cheaper and more efficient, and the price of batteries continues to drop, this may soon be a practical option for many households.

All of which could help solar energy become a cheaper, cleaner source of energy right across the UK.

British Gas renewables. Fight climate change 
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If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, our green gas and electricity tariffs can help. We’ll match 100% of your electricity with renewable sources. And we’ll offset your gas use with carbon reduction projects in developing countries.

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Tidal energy

According to government research, tidal and wave energy has the potential to meet up to a fifth of the UK’s current electricity needs.

Tides are more predictable than the wind or the sun. And the technology to harvest the power of water has developed rapidly in recent years.

Different routes to tidal electricity

Tidal stream energy can be generated by water passing through waterwheels, which spin turbine generators to produce electricity.

It can also be made by using barrages – similar to dams – to create tidal reservoirs. Water is then channelled into underwater tunnels containing turbine generators, which spin to produce electricity.

How to harness wave power

Capturing wave energy is more complicated. New methods and equipment are being designed, built and tested all the time – from tidal turbines placed under water (they work much the same way as wind turbines) through to the oscillating water column, where waves compress the air in a chamber and drive a turbine.

Tidal and wave energy – advantages and disadvantages

Capturing wave energy is more complicated. New methods and equipment are being designed, built and tested all the time – from tidal turbines placed under water (they work much the same way as wind turbines) through to the oscillating water column, where waves compress the air in a chamber and drive a turbine.

Wave power is expensive

It’s diffcult to justify the amount of public money required to develop the technology. And tests in Cornwall and Orkney failed to win support because they were just so costly.

Could ocean life be harmed?

Harnessing wave and tidal power has also raised environmental concerns, particularly in areas like the Severn estuary. Research is needed.

Biomass energy

Biomass energy mostly comes from burning wooden pellets, and a mix of household, business and farm waste. It can also be generated from gas produced by sewage sludge.

The heat it releases turns water into steam, driving turbines just like a conventional coal-fired power station.

Most UK renewable energy is from biomass

There are 28 biomass power stations operating in the UK, and in 2017 they produced the majority of the UK’s renewable energy – at almost 40%.

Biomass energy – advantages and disadvantages

Biomass is considered a renewable source because it’s generated from plant and organic material that can re-grow in a relatively short time – compared to the millions of years it takes to form coal and natural gas.

Climate change concerns

Burning biomass produces greenhouses gas, so there are questions about its sustainability.

Some say that burning wood is carbon-neutral. That’s because trees take in carbon dioxide when they’re alive, and release it back into the atmosphere when they die.

Could biomass be carbon-neutral?

Whether they’re burned or decompose naturally, the amount of CO2 released is about the same. So in theory, if trees are replanted as quickly as they’re harvested, the new trees will absorb and store the same amount of CO2 that burning wood produces. Which makes the whole process carbon neutral.

Other renewables are greener

It’s certainly ‘greener’ than fossil fuels – where none of the released carbon is offset. But the greenhouse gas savings are much less than other forms of renewable energy like wind or wave power, which create almost no CO2 emissions.

British Gas and renewable energy

We’re at the forefront of cleaner, greener energy. For years we’ve been investing in the development of offshore wind farms. And in ‘green’ gas – biomethane produced from biomass.

We’re way ahead of target

The UK government wants 30% of the country’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. And we’re already exceeding that.

If you buy your electricity from British Gas, 56% of it comes from sustainable sources, which is more than the 33% average for suppliers in the UK. 1

100% renewable electricity

Our green tariff matches 100% of the electricity you buy with renewable sources. So for all the electricity you use, we’ll feed the same amount back into the National Grid from sustainable sources.

Carbon-neutral gas

We also offset your carbon footprint when you buy gas from us, by supporting carbon emission reduction products in the developing world.

If you’re ready to make the switch to more sustainable energy, why not explore our range of green tariffs?

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Additional information

  1. Figures cover the period between the 1st April 2018 to 31st March 2019.