EU Reaches a Significant Milestone as Renewables Become their Biggest Source of Electricity

Renewable Energy sources such as Wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy generated more electricity than fossil fuels in the European Union in the first six months of 2020. According to a new report, renewables dominated the electricity market by producing 40% of the 27 member states’ electricity overtaking fossil fuels which accounted for just 34%.

Ember, the London based climate think-tank focused on accelerating the global electricity transition, believe this was largely due to an increase in new solar and wind installations assisted to some extent by favourable weather conditions and the Covid-19 shutdowns.

Ember’s report notes:

“This was driven by new wind and solar installations and favourable conditions during a mild and windy start to the year.”

Electricity demand fell by 7% during the Covid-19 shutdowns and renewables fared better than fossil fuels during this period with a sharp increase in electricity generated from renewables. Fossil fuels suffered from the fall in electricity demand with coal and gas generation dropping by 18% overall to make up just over a third of the bloc’s overall electricity share. Gas generation fell by 6% with declines registered in 11 countries, including significant drops in Spain and Italy.

As a direct result of this, carbon emissions from the EU’s power sector fell by almost a quarter in the same period, a 23% drop, noted in Ember’s report.

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During the first half of 2020, wind and solar contributed to 22 per cent of Europe’s electricity generation. Some European countries did even better than this. In Denmark, 64% of electricity was generated from wind and solar, in Ireland, 49% and in Germany, 42%.

This is the first time ever that renewables have become Europe’s main generators of electricity eclipsing the electricity share generated by gas and coal. Ember calculated that this amounts to an increase of 11% by renewables in the period between January and June.

Dave Jones, a senior electricity analyst at Ember, said:

“This marks a symbolic moment in the transition of Europe’s electricity sector.”

He said that only nine years ago coal and gas far outstripped the renewables sector, then in its infancy. In fact, fossil fuels generated twice as much electricity as renewables at that point in time.

Every member state with coal assets saw a fall in coal generation laying bare the stark reality for Europe’s ailing coal power sector. Coal has been most impacted by the fall with fossil-fuel power generation falling in every country where it was part of the electricity mix.

According to Ember’s study, Portugal saw a staggering 95% drop in coal generation, experiencing extended periods of coal-free power over the period which led to the shutdown of coal-fired power plants being brought forward. In Spain coal generation dropped by 58% even before half of its coal plants closed in June amid Covid-19 lockdown measures. At the same time, Germany’s coal power generation also fell by 39% as the country’s share of wind and solar penetration soared to 42%. The pace of change is varying from country to country.

It appears that coal is being phased out across the whole of the EU with Poland becoming Europe’s biggest coal generator after Germany.

Dave Jones warned that even though there was a broad trend away from coal power, the pace of change was “not equal” across the EU bloc.

Ember’s report said:

“For the first time ever, Germany generated less coal-fired electricity than Poland. Coal also fell in other countries faster than Poland, so that Poland now generates as much coal generation as the remaining 25 EU countries combined.”

Germany without a doubt saw the biggest fall in coal-fired electricity being the most impacted by the reduction in demand due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Poland does not have a timeline for phasing out coal and is the only member state yet to sign up to the EU’s 2050 carbon neutrality target. It also has the second most expensive electricity in Europe after Greece. Furthermore, Poland, as one of the most affected by the drop in electricity demand, announced a bailout plan for its coal mining sector, which is currently suffering from falling demand, cheaper alternatives and accumulated financial losses.

Dave Jones said that the EU’s €750bn Covid-19 economic recovery package which was endorsed recently by the European Council could be a clear way out of coal for countries such as Poland and the EU’s third largest coal generator Czechia. He would like to see the EU using the opportunity afforded by its combined €1.8 trillion seven-year budget and recovery package to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels so that it can meet its climate ambition.

He thinks that though wind and solar have increased that it’s not enough to reach the level that is needed by 2030 and that the EU should increase its 2030 target to reduce emissions by 55% from 1990 levels – up from 40% now – by deploying two to three times more wind per year in the 2020s than it has over the last decade.

He said:

“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.”

Dave Jones told Climate Home News that renewable sources overtaking fossil fuels in electricity generation had been “inevitable” after wind and solar generated more electricity than coal in 2019. He believes that Covid-19 has probably expedited the takeover by a couple of years and that this trend will continue even if the pandemic significantly slows down new wind and solar installations in 2020.

He said:

“Every year more renewables are coming online. This is not a one-off, it’s not going to switch back.”

Finland’s LUT University has developed a 100% renewable energy scenario predicting that electricity could make up 85% of the EU’s energy mix by 2050, more than 60% of which would be generated by solar panels.