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 is a type of energy that comes from renewable resources.

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

What are renewable resources?

A renewable energy resource is something that won’t run out. Think sunlight, wind and water. This means we get energy that will last.

What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources?

A non-renewable resource for example would be fossil fuels. These 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 54% of our electricity from environmentally friendly sources – the national average for suppliers is just 41%.

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.

Help make energy greener with off-peak electricity

Using electricity at off-peak times could help discount your bills while making energy more sustainable.

About off-peak electricity

Different types of renewable energy

There are many types of renewable energy available and being developed. Below we will take a look at some of the renewable energy sources we are already harnessing.

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. Wind energy accounted for 24% of total electricity generation in 2020 – that’s enough to power 8.4 trillion LED light bulbs. This is expected to increase as investment in new wind farms across Britain continues. 1

Wind farms based on land

As of 2017, onshore wind farms generated enough electricity to meet the needs of over 7 million homes. Overall, wind power accounts for a quarter of total electricity generation. 1

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 around 4% of its electricity from solar energy. In fact, after wind and biomass, solar power is the third most generated renewable in the UK. 2

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, upwards of a million UK homes use PV or thermal solar panels. In addition, there are over 600 solar farms around the country generating solar energy. 3

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.

Want to make your business greener?

Discover sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective energy for your business by harnessing the power of the sun.

Tidal energy

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 78 biomass power stations operating in the UK, and in 2021 they supplied 20% of our renewable electricity supply. 4

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 greener than you may think

British Gas are the biggest energy supplier of zero carbon electricity.

Check out our Fuel Mix and you’ll see British Gas is well above average. In fact, 54% of our electricity comes from renewable sources – way above the UK suppliers’ average of 41%. 5

And we're rewarding customers for being greener too

If your electricity is with British Gas and you have a smart meter, join the hundreds of thousands of customers who’ve signed up to our PeakSave scheme.

PeakSavers can earn credit towards their bills by helping to the grid to better balance demand for electricity when it’s particularly high, or low.

When demand for electricity is at its highest, it’s often necessary to generate more electricity by burning fossil fuels. And when its low, renewable sources are more readily available.

Already generate your own renewable energy?

Take a look at our smart export guarantee scheme and get paid for excess electricity you export to the grid.

Want to know more?

Get cheaper off-peak electricity

Using electricity at off-peak times could help discount your bills while making energy more sustainable.

About off-peak electricity

Energy saving tips

Reduce your bill and your carbon footprint by trying our energy saving tips

Find out how to save

Average energy bill

How does the energy you use compare to the typical UK household?

See an average energy bill

Additional information

  1. Source:  https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/windenergyintheuk/june2021

  2. Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-trends-section-6-renewables

  3. Source: https://www.solarpowerportal.co.uk/blogs/uk_solar_farm_pipeline_at_17gw_capacity_58_sites_under_review_for_2021_cons

  4. Source: https://www.biomass-uk.org/

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