Renewables overtook fossil fuels as EU’s main power source in 2020

Wind generation made up 14% of the EU's electricity in 2020 [Oimheidi / Pixabay]

Renewables generated 38% of the EU’s electricity in 2020, overtaking coal and gas to become the main source of electricity for the first time ever in Europe, according to fresh data released on Monday (25 January).

The share of fossil fuels in the electricity mix fell to 37% while the remaining 25% was made up by nuclear power, according to the study published today by think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende.

Both wind and solar generation increased capacity in 2020, producing 14% and 5% of the EU’s electricity respectively. Together, they generated a fifth of the EU’s electricity.

The remaining share of renewables (19%) was supplied mainly by hydropower and bioenergy. However, these have remained stable over the years and have mostly stopped growing.

“At the start of a decade of global climate action, it is satisfying that Europe has already reached this green power tipping point. Rapid growth in wind and solar has forced coal into decline but this is just the beginning,” said Dave Jones, senior electricity analyst at Ember Climate.

The rise of renewables and decrease of coal and gas means that Europe’s electricity production was 29% cleaner than in 2015.

“Europe is relying on wind and solar to ensure not only coal is phased out by 2030, but also to replace gas generation, replace closing nuclear power plants, and to meet rising electricity demand from electric cars and heat pumps,” added Jones.

Looking ahead, there are plenty of challenges, though. The EU has a binding target to increase the share of renewables to 32% of its overall energy mix by 2030, up from just under 20% currently. But that target will have to be raised to 38-40% in order to meet the bloc’s updated climate goals for 2030, the European Commission has said.

Europe's new climate plan heralds energy 'transformation'

Meeting the EU’s proposed new climate targets for 2030 will require a “transformation” of the bloc’s energy system, with a renewed focus on renewables and further efforts to cut fossil fuels in buildings, transport and industry, the European Commission has said.

In 2020, the capacity of wind and solar increased by 51 terawatt hours – well above the average – but the study says it will need to increase by 100 TWh annually to meet the EU’s new climate goals.

EU countries laid out plans for renewable production last year, but at the moment, these only add up to an increase of 72 TWh hours per year.

There are also huge discrepancies between EU member states. While Denmark generated 62% of its electricity from wind and solar last year – double the share of second-placed Ireland – its market remains relatively small, at 18 TWh.

And seven countries have barely seen any growth since 2015 – Portugal, Romania, Austria, Italy, Czechia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, Ember said.

Europe’s electricity consumption figures were also impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of lockdown measures implemented across Europe, electricity demand was down 4% in 2020, recording a marked fall in comparison with previous years.

But the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on electricity demand was short lived and fossil fuels bounced back later in the year, helped by a fall in nuclear generation, which had its worst year on record, with a 10% decrease in power output.

Coal meanwhile continued to collapse, diving by 20% in 2020, and halving since 2015. Gas, for its part, only fell by 4%, helped by “a robust carbon price” which made it “the cheapest form of fossil generation,” according to the report. And half of the decline in coal is attributed to renewables while the other half was due to falling demand caused by the COVID crisis.

The Netherlands and Spain had the greatest decrease of coal in the energy mix, reducing it by half. However, Poland only reduced it by 8%.

Portugal on track to become coal-free by year end

The Sines coal plant in Portugal went offline at midnight yesterday evening (14 January), leaving the country with just one remaining coal power station in operation, which is scheduled for closure in November.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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