Long recognized as an alternative to fossil fuels and once again heralded as an invaluable tool for tackling climate change, hydrogen is a key component within many of the recently announced national net-zero energy plans being rolled out by individual nations as well as the European Union. Hydrogen will likely be given a center role in new President Joe Biden’s climate plan too. To help sort out hope from hype, climate think tank, Carbon Brief recently published a detailed and invaluable hydrogen explainer. With comments from one of the analysts quoted in the explainer, L. Michael Buchsbaum helps untangle hydrogen’s reality.
The change of power in Washington has opened up a new window for transatlantic climate cooperation, a stated priority for the Biden administration and the European Commission. The first piece in this series examined the political obstacles on the US side. What is the outlook on the EU side?
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.
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.
Joe Biden’s electoral victory has renewed European hopes of putting the brakes on global climate change. But before he becomes a global climate leader the new president faces a string of obstacles not only from Republicans and the US courts but also from within his own party. Sarah Jackson and Noah J. Gordon have the story.
When the UK finalized a trade and security agreement with the European Commission on 24 December last year, it left with a set of arrangements governing future energy cooperation.
Here, Dr David Lowry looks at the background and reveals one extraordinary condition that could terminate the nuclear component of the deal.
Natural gas has long been touted as the climate-friendly, carbon-low interim fuel in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And the recent fall in its price has made gas a go-to fuel for many countries, including Germany. But experts say this is no reason to build ever more pipelines or to see gas as anything more than another fossil fuel that must be phased out as quickly as possible. Paul Hockenos reports.
The last few months have seen a rivulet of announcements around proposed carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) plans. Long trumpeted by the fossil fuels industry and given a recent boost by the scientists at the EIA and IPCC, it has become a favored climate change solution by policymakers in the EU, Johnson’s UK and plays a key role in the new Biden Administration energy transition strategies. CCS is also a key component within various envisioned “clean” hydrogen and net-carbon neutral schemes. But many fear that depending on CCS will only anchor fossil energy polluters long into the future. The first of a three-part series, L. Michael Buchsbaum reviews some of the fundamentals and current status of carbon capture projects worldwide.
We are all looking for some good news. Here’s some: coal is tanking globally, nowhere faster than in the EU including the UK. With over 8.3GW of generation capacity coming offline during the first half of the year, coal-fired energy has fallen by almost a third across Europe. Even better: at least another 6 GW of capacity is scheduled to shutter during the second half of 2020 as Spain and Portugal join Sweden and Austria in ending their coal ages. As part of a series on the global decline of coal in 2020, L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look at Europe, where coal is increasingly unwelcome.
In what may seem a last ditch effort, the European Union has turned to the slow churning wheels of the law to stimulate climate action in 27 Member States (MS) towards a single goal: a carbon neutral Europe by 2050. European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen puts on a warm smile to say the text of the proposed European Union Climate Law is “actually rather short and it is rather simple.” We leave simplicity to constitutional lawyers, who may find “simple” an amusing word to describe a law with massive implications for national constitutions and EU treaties. Michael Davies-Venn has the story.
As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2020, with the UK finally to leave the European Union on 31 December after its transition period expires, the EU – primarily the Commission – itself has continued to refine the parameters of its sustainable energy strategy, which has been constructed very much in the face of the pressures of the unprecedented global pandemic. David Lowry has the details.