Wind and solar overtook fossil gas in Europe for the first time

Wind and solar generated a record one-fifth (22%) of electricity in the European Union in 2022 – overtaking fossil gas (20%) for the first time, according to a new study published today.

Energy think tank Ember’s analysis, “European Electricity Review,” also reveals that coal power share increased by just 1.5 percentage points to generate 16% of EU electricity in 2022, with year-on-year falls in the last four months of 2022 as Europe prevented a threatened return to coal power in the wake of the 2022 energy crisis. 

Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember, said:

Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis.

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.

Record wind and solar growth in Europe

Europe faced a triple crisis in the electricity sector in 2022, according to Ember. As Europe scrambled to cut ties with Russia, its largest fossil gas supplier, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it faced the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear in at least 20 years, and that created a deficit equal to 7% of Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022. 

But record wind and solar growth helped cushion the hydro and nuclear deficit. Solar rose the fastest, growing by a record 39 TWh (24%) in 2022 – almost twice its previous record – which helped to avoid €10 billion in gas costs. Twenty EU countries set new solar records in 2022.

Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe, said:

Solar is stepping up right when Europe needs it most. These new numbers show that rapid solar growth is truly the foundation of the energy transition.

In 2023, with the right support, solar will break more records, reduce fossil energy demand further, and take us one year closer to a 100% renewable Europe.

Lower electricity demand also helped reduce the deficit. EU electricity demand dropped by 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year (-56 TWh). Mild weather played a large part, along with affordability pressures, energy efficiency improvements, and EU citizens actively cutting energy in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Just one-sixth of the nuclear and hydro deficit was met by coal. Coal generation rose by 7% (+28 TWh). As a result, EU power sector emissions rose by 3.9% (+26 MtCO2) in 2022 compared to 2021. But wind, solar, and a fall in electricity demand prevented a much larger return to coal. So contextually, coal’s rise was not substantial: It remained below 2018 levels and added only 0.3% to global coal generation.

Coal power in the EU fell in all four of the final months of 2022, down 6% year-on-year. The 26 coal units placed on emergency standby for winter ran at an average of just 18% capacity. Despite importing 22 million tonnes of extra coal throughout 2022, the EU only used one-third of it.

Surprisingly, fossil gas generation was almost unchanged (+0.8%) in 2022 compared to 2021, despite record-high prices. Gas generated 20% of EU electricity in 2022, up from 19% the previous year. However, this is expected to change drastically in 2023. 

Fossil gas is going to plunge in 2023

In 2023, Europe’s wind and solar transition is expected to speed up in response to the energy crisis, and hydro and French nuclear is going to recover. So fossil fuel generation could drop by 20% in 2023, double the previous record from 2020, according to Ember.

Coal generation will fall, but fossil gas generation, which is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025, will fall the fastest.

Ember’s Jones said:

Europe’s clean power transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever.

Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well. The energy crisis has undoubtedly sped up Europe’s electricity transition. Europe is hurtling towards a clean, electrified economy, and this will be on full display in 2023.

Change is coming fast, and everyone needs to be ready for it.

Read more: Solar will become 10 times cheaper than gas in Europe – study

Photo: Orsted

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