With war raging in Ukraine, Europe simultaneously scrambled to cut ties with Russia, its biggest fossil gas supplier, while also dealing with the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear generation in at least two decades. Though many feared a swing back to coal, a new analysis by the climate think tank, Ember reveals that wind and solar energy largely filled the gap, generating a record fifth of all the EU electricity and overtaking fossil gas for the first time in the process. Additionally, as shown in their newly published European Electricity Review, increased renewable deployment saved consumers billions in higher bills while staving off a larger return to climate-damaging coal. Proving itself to be a potent solution to the triple crisis of energy availability, affordability and sustainability, Ember sees Europe’s response as accelerating the energy transition going forward. Lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum, reviews the new data.
Record increase in solar power
While trying to swiftly replace Russian fossil gas and other fuels which the EU recognized were helping fund the Kremlin’s military, droughts across the continent constricted hydroelectric generation all of last year as widespread outages plagued France’s nuclear fleet.
Facing a triple crisis in the electricity sector of skyrocketing costs, lack of available supplies, and necessary environmental constraints, European governments and energy developers hastened new wind and solar builds, spurring a record deployment which helped cushion both the hydro and nuclear gap as well the phase out of Russian supplies.
As energy prices rose alongside geopolitical tensions, solar generation grew by a record 39 TWh (+24%) — almost twice as much as any year so far. Ember estimates this helped ratepayers avoid some €10 billion in gas costs.
Perhaps more significantly, another 41.4 GW of photovoltaic capacity was connected to the EU’s grid, setting an all-time 47% jump of expansion numbers, year over year, according to industry group SolarPower Europe. They find these additions mean that the EU’s overall solar generation fleet capacity last year increased some 25% to almost 209 GW.
“Solar is stepping up right when Europe needs it most,” said Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe. Ticking all three boxes of the energy trilemma, solar ensures sustainability, affordability, and security of supply, added Hemetsberger.
Twenty EU countries increase solar to record levels
According to Ember, throughout 2022, twenty EU countries increased the share of solar power plants in their energy mix to record levels.
Topping the list with the most growth is the Netherlands with 14%, where the solar sector has surpassed coal production for the first time.
Throughout the year, 26 out of 27 EU member states deployed more solar than in 2021.
Germany remained Europe’s biggest solar market, with another 7.9 GW of newly installed capacity coming online.
This was followed by Spain which added 7.5 GW, then Poland (4.9 GW), the Netherlands (4 GW), and France (2.7 GW).
With 68.5 GW of installed capacity, Germany continues to be the largest operator of solar power plants in the EU.
However, with their new additions, in 2022 Spain overtook Italy and now ranks second in the EU with a total of 26.4 GW of installed capacity.
Another literal bright spot is Greece. While generating electricity exclusively from renewable energy sources for five hours straight, solar capacity there is expanding so rapidly that the country now expects to reach its 2030 target of 8 GW of overall solar power capacity by the end of 2023. Looking ahead, its new National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) targets 28 GW of renewables by 2030 compared to 19 GW under the previous plan, plus 8 GW of energy storage, up from 3 GW previously.
Droughts fail to resurrect gas consumption
But surprisingly, according to Ember, gas generation was almost unchanged (+0.8%) in 2022 compared to 2021, despite record-high prices.
Initial figures show that fossil gas generated 20% of EU electricity in 2022, up from 19% the previous year.
Note: fossil gas also has widespread usage throughout heavy industry where it remains a feedstock for plastics, chemicals or other products. Ember’s review only focuses on electrical generation.
Dead coal bounce?
Despite fears that cheaper coal would flood the electrical generation fleet to make up for missing and increasingly more expensive fossil gas, that didn’t happen.
Though across the EU, Ember tallied 26 coal-fired power plants going back into standby, coal power only increased its share by 1.5 percentage points.
Accounting for 16% of overall electricity production in 2022, Ember’s data shows that the expansion in the wind and solar sectors combined with a decline in electrical demand prevented a much larger black diamond return.
In context, total coal power in the EU still remained below 2018 levels and added only 0.3% to overall global coal generation.
Yet as electricity demand began declining towards the end of the year, coal’s share fell as well. During the last quarter of 2022, their average utilization was only 18%, itself down 6% year-on-year.
“Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” said Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones. “The shocks of 2022 only caused a minor ripple in coal power and a huge wave of support for renewables. Any fears of a coal rebound are now dead.”
No doubt, lower electricity consumption across the EU also helped mitigate the deficit from reduced nuclear and hydro power along with curtailed Russian fossil fuel supplies.
Demand fell throughout the year, dropping by 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year.
While mild weather was a major factor, Ember also suggests that the amount of private and institutional consumers along with government agencies all acting in solidarity to cut energy demand during the crisis helped curtail energy usage.
But certainly skyrocketing prices and fears of energy affordability also played a very decisive factor in reduced consumption as Europeans elected to put on extra layers of clothing instead of paying eye-popping bills.
Going forward, Ember’s data shows that the European energy transition is emerging from the energy crisis “stronger than ever.”
Having proven themselves as ways to ensure security and affordability, wind and solar deployment will continue to accelerate.
However, fossil fuel’s electrical generation share, especially that of still very expensive fossil gas and LNG, will decrease throughout 2023.
Ember’s findings dovetail with newly projected figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which postulate that solar, wind and other renewable energy systems will cover almost all global electricity demand growth through 2025, becoming the world’s top source of electricity within three years.