Getting Greener: Renewables overtake fossil-fueled electricity throughout Europe

Few folks are going to look back fondly on 2020, but renewable energy campaigners will mark it as the year when clean electricity finally overtook coal and gas in Europe. New reporting by think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende detail the progress to reduce fossil generation’s share. Despite this, now that the EU has upped its net emissions reduction goals to at least 55% by 2030, the data also shows how much more work needs to be done. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the good news and troubling data.

Clean electricity in Europe surpassed fossil fuel generation in 2020.


Greening up

In late January, Ember and Agora Energiewende’s published their fifth annual report tracking Europe’s electricity transition. The big reveal was that renewables overtook fossil fuels as the EU’s main source of electricity for the first time in 2020.

The data shows that renewables rose to generate 38% of Europe’s electricity in 2020, up from 34.6% in 2019. Conversely, fossil-fired generation fell to 37%.

“Wind and solar rose to supply a fifth of Europe’s electricity in 2020. And that’s having a major impact in helping to reduce Europe’s coal generation, which has nearly halved in five years,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s Global Program Lead.

Of course Covid-19 impacted generation in all countries. But the data shows that the virus’ impact on the overall trend away from fossil fuels was quite limited. In fact, not only was the rise in renewables “reassuringly robust” despite the pandemic, the drop in dirty electricity would have been greater had it not been for such a bounce-back in electricity demand combined with the worst year on record for nuclear generation. So many plants were simultaneously offline due to maintenance problems – or being taken offline via policy – particularly in France, Sweden and Germany, that nuclear generation fell 10% across the continent. Ironically, said Jones, had this not happened, even more fossil energy would have been knocked-out.

Success is achievable

During a web-based conference detailing the report, Jones clarified that renewables had overtaken fossil-generation only in electricity generation not in overall energy consumption–a misunderstanding that led to several media retractions as global outlets rushed to report on the rare bit of good news.

Citing a statement from the activist group Extinction Rebellion, Jones further qualified the progress made. “This isn’t success. It means success is achievable.” In other words, said Jones, “while we’re on the right pathway, it’s by no means where we need to be.”

Nevertheless, the report documents where Europe is on what is now an existential transition towards clean energy and climate neutrality.

Real Renewable progress

Ember and Agora define renewables as bioenergy (including biomass), hydro-electricity, wind and solar.

Biomass, particularly the burning of wood, has been displacing coal in some nations, particularly the UK—with dubious actual environmental progress being made there. However throughout the EU, with the exception of the Netherlands, it’s share has been flat or declining.

Throughout the EU, hydro-generation has been fluctuating as rain patterns change. But most of the overall renewable growth comes down to wind and solar.

No other nation has as much renewables on the system in terms of overall Terawatt hours (TWh) of service as Germany. However in terms of increasing TWh, in 2020 the Netherlands saw a rapid 40% increase. Sweden’s also grew at 36%, Belgium likewise saw a 28% rise. Germany, where renewables already play an outsize role, increased clean energy terawatt hours by an additional 8%.

Combined wind and solar now make up 20%

But in reviewing the previous decade through 2020, despite the increase in awareness around the necessity to act, let alone the growing costs of inaction, overall renewable growth in the EU did not move any faster in the second half of decade compared to the first. In many nations, including Slovakia, Czechia, Bulgaria and Italy, the pace of renewables coming online from 2015 through 2020 actually slowed.

However Hungary, France, Finland and Netherlands did see large increases although the Netherlands remains under both 20% and the EU average.

Conversely, Germany is now generating 33% of its electricity from just wind and solar. “Quite an impressive feat and achievement,” said Jones.

Gas is the new coal

As Agora also reported, last year renewables overtook fossil energy in Germany. In Spain too, renewables now generate more than fossil energy. Both achievements reflect coal’s shrinking role throughout the continent. Overall, Jones contextualized, coal generation is now half of what it was back in 2015.

Cleaner generation in the UK, however, had already surpassed coal. Moreover, Ember’s data shows that the UK is the only nation in Europe where wind and solar is displacing more than coal. “As more and more wind comes online, its no longer offsetting coal, but gas,” said Jones.

And therein lies the rub: in order for the EU to achieve its climate goals, gas needs to become the new coal. As more wind, solar and other renewables come online, it’s gas they need to displace. Instead many countries seem to be opting simply to switch fossil fuel dependencies, hoping the “optics” of phasing out coal would be enough to satisfy the clamor of environmentalist pressure. Never mind the science that doesn’t support gas’ climate superiority.

But back in the UK, the question is now how quickly can that country phase out fossil generation all together?

Not fast enough

Though 2020 did see an overall uptick in renewable capacity, it was not a substantial increase and nowhere near where it needs to be.

While definitely progress has been made, the report emphasizes that the transition from coal to clean is “still too slow for reaching minimum 55% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.”

Getting there, “means that in the next ten years, the EU must reduce emissions as much as we have over the last 30,” said Matthias Buck, Head of European Energy Policy for Agora Energiewende.

Data shows an average increase of renewables of only about 38 TWh per year through the 2010-20 period.

Achieving the more ambitious emissions reductions by 2030 requires a 68% increase in renewable capacity. Not only does this require close to a 100TWh per year increase, “that’s almost three times more than what we did in the last decade. We need to be increasing at three times those levels of build-out to meet our new targets,” Jones said, with virtually no other fossil fuel generation coming on.

“The step-up in renewables going forward needs to set new records. The only question is ‘will it be fast enough to hit targets?’” asked Jones.

To reach these targets, renewables need to constitute some 70% of the EU’s electricity capacity, said Buck. And coal needs to be phased out almost completely by then, making up only 2% of generation by Agora’s estimates.

by

L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

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