Wind turbines and solar panels produced more than a fifth of the EU’s electricity last year, for the first time delivering more power than natural gas, a new report shows.
The analysis, from independent energy think tank Ember, indicates that wind and solar produced 22% of the EU’s electricity over the year, while gas generated 20%. The report further shows that the rise in renewable electricity generation helped to avoid €10 billion ($10.89 billion) in gas costs.
The use of coal, the most carbon-intense fossil fuel, rose by 1.5% over the year to generate 16% of European electricity—but this rise was short-lived, with thermal coal generation dropping markedly in the latter part of the year.
Meanwhile, hydropower and nuclear generation, which generate the lion’s share of EU electricity, both fell to the lowest levels seen in 20 years. Dry conditions across much of the continent caused river levels to fall, cutting hydroelectric generation, while nuclear reactors were taken offline—some for maintenance, others permanently.
The largest increase in terms of renewables was seen in solar, which surged by 24%, delivering an additional 39 terawatt hours of electricity over the previous year. No less than 20 EU nations achieved a record share of solar generation.
Overall, the year saw electricity demand decline, with a fall in demand of 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared with the same period in 2021—a drop Ember attributed to warmer weather, affordability concerns, and energy-saving behaviours among Europeans.
Ember forecast the carbon intensity of EU electricity to fall even further in 2023, as nuclear power stations come back online, and wind and solar deployments continue. The analysts forecast a 20% fall in fossil fuel-based generation over 2023.
“Europe’s clean power transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s head of data insights. “Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well. The energy crisis has undoubtedly sped up Europe’s electricity transition.”
“Europe is hurtling towards a clean, electrified economy, and this will be on full display in 2023,” Jones added. “Change is coming fast, and everyone needs to be ready for it.”
Ember noted that the first two weeks of 2023 alone had seen a 29% fall in the use of fossil fuel generation. Coal and gas use are expected to fall further over the year: the analysts found that the bloc used only a third of the 22 million tons of extra coal it imported to hedge against factors such as nuclear reactor closures and the cessation of natural gas from Russia. Ember concluded that EU nations remain just as committed to phasing out coal as they had been prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the shift away from gas for electricity production would continue unabated.
The report comes hot on the heels of an energy report from oil major BP that forecast a drop in demand for gas and oil, accelerated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The increased focus on energy security as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war has the potential to accelerate the energy transition as countries seek to increase access to domestically produced energy, much of which is likely to come from renewables and other non-fossil fuels,” said BP’s chief economist, Spencer Dale.
In a graphic, BP said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “permanently dented fossil fuel demand.”
Reacting to the Ember report, Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Commission’s European Green Deal, said: “We are seeing a remarkable acceleration in the pace with which renewable energy is being built … It’s clear that European citizens want to benefit from cheap, clean energy.”
Timmermans said the figures indicated the EU’s target of 45% renewables by 2030 is “ambitious but entirely feasible. Europeans know that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Renewables are crucial to tackle the climate crisis and cut air pollution. They are also crucial to end our dependence on Russian fossil fuels.”
Elif Gündüzyeli, senior energy policy expert at the NGO coalition CAN Europe, said: “European Electricity Review 2023 proves that demand reduction, coupled with significantly more wind and solar generation can replace fossil fuels in the electricity sector. It should not take a fossil gas crisis to hit in order to grasp this and move accordingly.” Gündüzyeli urged European legislators to “ride this wave and agree on higher energy savings and sustainable renewables targets.”
The Ember report “European Electricity Review 2023” can be viewed here.
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