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Landmark moment as EU renewables overtake fossil fuels for the first time in 2020

Source: Unsplash/Karsten Würth

Renewable energy sources accounted for 38% of EU electricity generation in 2020, driven by the growth of wind and solar and the steady decline of coal.

Landmark moment as EU renewables overtake fossil fuels

According to detailed analysis of the European Power Sector in 2020, renewables rose to generate 38% of Europe’s electricity in 2020 (compared to 34.6% in 2019), for the first time overtaking fossil-fired generation, which fell to 37%. This is an important milestone in Europe’s Clean Energy Transition. At a country level, Germany and Spain (and separately the UK) also achieved this milestone for the first time. The study goes on to point out that the transition from coal to clean is, however, still too slow for reaching 55% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.

Carbon intensity has fallen from 317 grams of CO2 per kilowatt- hour in 2015 to 226 grams in 2020. Although coal generation has almost halved in that time, 43% of the coal decline has been offset by increased gas generation, slowing the reduction in carbon intensity.
Europe’s electricity in 2020 was 29% cleaner than in 2015. Carbon intensity has fallen from 317 grams of CO2 per kilowatt- hour in 2015 to 226 grams in 2020. Although coal generation has almost halved in that time, 43% of the coal decline has been offset by increased gas generation, slowing the reduction in carbon intensity. Source: Unsplash/Karsten Würth

Analysis shows Europe recorded its greenest electricity year ever in 2020

Ember and Agora Energiewende’s fifth annual report tracking Europe’s electricity transition was published on 25th January 2021. It revealed that renewables overtook fossil fuels to become the EU’s main source of electricity for the first time in 2020.

For the first time, more electricity was generated from renewables than from fossil fuels. Renewables accounted for 38% of Europe’s electricity mix in 2020, compared with only 37% for fossil fuels, according to a joint analysis by Agora Energiewende and the British think tank Ember.

The change was driven by the rapid growth of wind and solar power, which has almost doubled since 2015. By 2020, one-fifth of EU electricity came from wind and solar power plants. The highest shares were recorded in Denmark (61%), Ireland (35%), Germany (33%) and Spain (29%).

While renewables nearly doubled, coal-fired power generation has halved since 2015. In 2020 alone, it fell by a fifth. Coal-fired power plants thus supplied only 13% of Europe’s electricity last year. By contrast, electricity generation from natural gas fell by only 4% in 2020. 

The background to this uneven development is the significant rise in the price of emissions certificates. As a result, comparatively climate-friendly gas-fired power plants often produced the cheapest electricity among fossil-fuel power plants. In Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, fossil gas even undercut lignite-fired power generation for the first time for a few months.

“It is significant that Europe has reached this landmark moment at the start of a decade of global climate action” said Dave Jones, Ember’s senior electricity analyst and the lead author of the report. “Rapid growth in wind and solar has forced coal into decline but this is just the beginning. Europe is relying on wind and solar to ensure not only coal is phased out by 2030, but also to phase out gas generation, replace closing nuclear power plants, and to meet rising electricity demand from electric cars, heat pumps and electrolysers.”   Continued below…

Source: Agora-Energiewende

Coal generation fell in almost every country, continuing coal’s collapse that was well in place before Covid- 19. Half of the drop in 2020 was due to a decrease in electricity demand, which fell by 4% due to the impact of Covid-19; and half was from additional wind and solar. As electricity demand bounces back in 2021, wind and solar will need to rise at a faster rate if the recent falls in coal are to be sustained.
Coal generation fell 20% in 2020, and has halved since 2015. Coal generation fell in almost every country, continuing coal’s collapse that was well in place before Covid- 19. Half of the drop in 2020 was due to a decrease in electricity demand, which fell by 4% due to the impact of Covid-19; and half was from additional wind and solar. As electricity demand bounces back in 2021, wind and solar will need to rise at a faster rate if the recent falls in coal are to be sustained. Source: Unsplash/Andreas Gücklhorn

post-pandemic economic recovery must not be allowed to slow climate protection

European electricity demand fell 4% in 2020, reaching a low in April during the first Covid-19 wave. Renewables growth was robust despite the pandemic. Further declines in fossil fuels were held back by increases in electricity demand later in the year and below-average nuclear generation.

The study also found that Europe’s electricity was 29% less carbon-intensive in 2020 than in 2015, with the carbon intensity of European electricity generation reaching a record low of 226 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour in 2020.

"The economic recovery after the pandemic must not be allowed to slow down climate protection," said Dr. Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende. "We therefore need strong climate policies – such as the Green Deal – to ensure steady progress."

At 51 terawatt-hours in 2020, the growth in electricity from wind and solar energy is above the average growth rate of the past ten years, which came in at 38 terawatt-hours. "However, to achieve the 100 terawatt-hours of annual additions required for climate neutrality, a doubling of the 2020 level is necessary," Graichen said. The current National Energy and Climate Plans (NECP) of the EU member states would only increase this figure to 75 terawatt-hours per year by 2030.

The study "The European Power Sector in 2020" is available for free download by clicking either ember-climate.org or agora-energiewende.de. It contains up-to-date data on the EU-27 and 19 individual countries.

Source: Agora-Energiewende

Wind generation rose 9% in 2020 and solar generation rose 15%. Together they generated a fifth of Europe’s electricity in 2020. Since 2015, wind and solar have supplied all of Europe’s growth in renewables, as bioenergy growth has stalled, and hydro generation remains unchanged.
Wind and solar are powering Europe’s renewables rise. Wind generation rose 9% in 2020 and solar generation rose 15%. Together they generated a fifth of Europe’s electricity in 2020. Since 2015, wind and solar have supplied all of Europe’s growth in renewables, as bioenergy growth has stalled, and hydro generation remains unchanged. Source: ember-climate.org
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