European renewables overtake fossil fuels in power generation

Analysis released by climate think tank Ember, which looked at the first half of 2020, found that renewables generated 40% of the EU’s electricity, whereas fossil fuels generated 34%.

The data found that new wind and solar installations along with favourable conditions during a mild and windy start to the year, saw renewables rise by 11%.

Furthermore, wind and solar alone reached a record of 21% of the EU’s total electricity generation, and reached even higher penetration in Denmark (64%), Ireland (49%) and Germany (42%).

In another boost, fossil fuel use fell by 18% as it battled a rising renewable generation and a 7% fall in electricity demand due to COVID-19.

Coal fell by 32%, with hard coal falling by 34% and lignite by 29%. Gas, which fell by 6%, registered a fall in 11 countries and as a result saw the power sector’s CO2 emissions fall by 23% (76 million tonnes) in the EU power sector.

The fall in coal was also boosted by Britain going coal-free, Sweden joining Austria in closing its final coal-fired power station and recently, Portugal closing its coal plants two years ahead of schedule.

Alarmingly for Poland, Germany’s coal generation collapsed below the country for the first time, and highlighted that it now generates more coal-fired electricity than Germany, and also as much as the remaining 25 EU countries combined.

Whilst most other countries, including Germany, have a plan to phase out coal, Poland doesn’t yet have a plan.

Dave Jones, Senior electricity analyst at Ember called this a “symbolic moment” and said that there was a “clear way out” for countries like Poland and Czechia.

“Renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels, driven by wind and solar replacing coal. That’s fast progress from just nine years ago when fossil fuels generated twice as much as renewables. But the change is not equal: Poland is now Europe’s biggest coal generator and Czechia is the third largest,” he said.

“For countries like Poland and Czechia there is now a clear way out, should they choose to take it. Europe’s Next Generation recovery deal can help countries fast-track their coal to clean transition by using stimulus spending to immediately step up wind and solar investment, and an expanded Just Transition Fund to move away from coal.”

This positive trend has been on an upwards spiral in the last ten years.

In the first half of 2020, renewables generated 40% of the EU-27’s electricity, whereas fossil fuels generated 34% and this has seen most coal energy phased out as the use of wind and solar has grown.

The phase out of coal has seen its market share half since 2016 to just 12% of the EU-27’s electricity generation.

The analysis by Ember found that renewables generated 40% of the EU’s electricity, whereas fossil fuels generated 34%. (Karsten Würth, Unsplash)

This of course meant that wind and solar would show an uphill trajectory which has seen it increase its market share from 13% in 2016 to 21% in the first half of 2020.

The analysis also found that hydro power generated 13% of the EU’s electricity so far this year and bioenergy generated 6%, although a small fraction of this (<15%) is generated by burning forest biomass (wood) to replace coal in power stations.

The problem with burning forest biomass is that it cannot be assumed to deliver the same climate benefits as renewables such as wind and solar. 

The 11% rise in renewable generation was mostly contributed to the increase in more wind and solar alternatives being installed.

Conditions were also very favourable with the sunny spells later in the year, a windy February and wetter Iberian and Nordic regions gave more hydro generation.

The rise saw wind energy increase by 11%, solar by 16%, hydro by 12% and bioenergy generation rose by 1%, though the data available is limited, so there are questions about the bioenergy numbers.

Of the 32% fall in coal, which every country saw a fall in, Germany saw the largest fall of 31TWh (39%).

Coal use fell in Poland, Czechia, Bulgaria and Romania but much of that was driven by increased cheaper imports from neighbouring countries, rather than rising renewables or falling demand.

Eleven European countries saw a fall in gas generation with Spain and Italy the highest, at 20% and 16%, respectively.

Encouragingly, the ever-increasing building of renewables show that 2019 could have been the peak-gas period in the power sector and this could dash any lingering gas industry hopes of a revival as coal units keep closing.

France’s nuclear output suffered due to COVID-19, and EDF’s nuclear output was damaged because staff shortages have meant that some plants had to shut down, like its oldest plant in Fessenheim.

One of many protests that were held against the operation of a nuclear plant in Fessenheim. (Michael Schmalenstroer, Creative Commons)

While wind and solar energy generated 22% of Europe’s electricity generation in the first half of the year, they supplied no less than 10% of Europe’s electricity generation every day, and no more than 33%.

The hourly fluctuations made this bigger, especially as solar delivers only during the daylight hours of the day. 

However, while the renewable increase shows positive signs, prices go negative when the supply of electricity is significantly greater than the demand for electricity.

Negative prices are an indicator of inflexibility in the electricity system and a lack of flexibility in the system could make the transition more expensive than it would need to be as system operators are forced to take more frequent and more expensive actions to balance the grid.

The authors of the study have called on “a big focus” on “flexibility” as wind and solar’s share of the electricity mix will increase further, and to keep the transition as “cheap and rapid as possible”.

The coronavirus pandemic has played its part in less solar and wind installations this year.

According to WindEurope, wind energy installations are to be around 30% lower than forecast.

Climact says that wind and solar installations will need to double or triple in the 2020s compared to last decade, to be on target for 55% emissions reductions by 2030.

The pandemic may have slowed down installations, but it has shown that renewables have proved more resilient than fossil fuels in the face of this crisis.

You can read more detailed analysis from Ember’s findings here.

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