Wind and solar power produced more of the EU’s electricity than fossil gas for the first time last year.
The renewable energies were responsible for a record fifth (22 per cent) of the bloc’s electricity, a new report from clean energy think tank Ember shows.
Through the turbulence of 2022 - from cutting ties with Russia to climate-driven drought and soaring gas prices - Europe’s clean energy transition soldiered on.
“Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” says Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones. “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.”
Gas power accounted for 20 per cent of the EU’s electricity in 2022, while coal took up 16 per cent of the share. This represents a mere 1.5 per cent increase on last year, as solar helped stave off a resurgence of the climate-wrecking fuel.
Here are the key electricity narratives behind these data points.
Hydro and nuclear power dipped in 2022
As spring arrived, Europe scrambled to cut ties with its biggest supplier of fossil gas. This was followed by a 1-in-500 year drought in summer, drying out the continent’s hydro reservoirs.
As a result, hydropower dropped to its lowest share of electricity since at least 2000.
The nuclear share also dipped significantly. This was largely due to outages at French power plants in need of maintenance, but climate also played a role as some nuclear reactors had to cut production to prevent overheating the rivers that are used to cool them down.
At the same time, electricity demand spiked as people turned up their air conditioning during the heatwaves.
Combined, nuclear and hydro generation fell by 185 TWh per hour, equivalent to 7 per cent of the EU’s total generation in 2022.
There were fears that coal would be roped in to plug the gap. But despite importing 22 million tonnes of extra coal throughout the year, the EU only ended up using a third of it.
Instead, a record growth in solar and wind were the runaway successes.
Which EU country is the solar energy leader?
Solar generation rose the fastest in 2022, growing by 24 per cent to avoid €10 billion in gas costs, Ember calculates.
This is almost twice its previous record, and 20 EU countries posted new national records.
The Netherlands is well at the top of the leaderboard, having generated 14 per cent of its electricity from the sun. It surpassed the naturally sunnier Spain, which now follows Greece, Hungary and Cyprus to make up the top five EU countries by solar share of electricity generation.
“Solar is stepping up right when Europe needs it most,” says Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe. “These new numbers show that rapid solar growth is truly the foundation of the energy transition.”
Some numbers can be traced back to well-designed policies; the Netherlands’ net-metering scheme, for example, which encourages residential solar. But Ember’s Jones also attributes the boost to people wanting to do their bit from a climate and energy security point of view.
“It's very easy to start looking at EU, and national policy and see how it cascades down,” he tells Euronews Green. “And they're all having an impact. But it is interesting to see it build from the bottom up, from the public themselves.”
Why did electricity demand drop in winter?
Europe saw a significant drop in electricity demand in winter, down 10 per cent from the previous year. Was this also due to citizens acting in solidarity at a time of crisis?
It’s a bit harder to disentangle, explains Jones. Milder temperatures played their part too, but more pressing is the cost-of-living crisis, which continues to curb people’s energy use.
“The problem, from a policymakers’ perspective, is making sure that people don’t confuse energy efficiency with falling demand,” he says. (The former involves getting more from your energy, fostered by genuine, long-lasting energy improvements.)
“I don’t think this is a win at the moment,” he adds, “but I’d love if it could be translated into a win. Like in the way people have really started adopting solar panels, people have an interest in energy efficiency and using less energy.
“So how do you actually capitalise on that goodwill and put the right policies in place to encourage that change to happen faster?”
What’s the energy and electricity outlook for 2023?
It’s early days, but 2023 is on track to be even cleaner than last year. 24 days in, the EU was already down 37 per cent on gas generation.
Ember estimates that fossil generation could plummet by 20 per cent this year, double the previous record from 2020.
It’s clear that we’re in the dying days of coal. Though backwards developments like the UK opening a new coal mine in Cumbria, or Germany allowing the village of Lützerath to be destroyed make for depressing news, Jones describes them as a “small moving part” in the scheme of things. Albeit a “symbolic part that shows how deep that ambition on climate [runs].”
Gas is heading even faster towards the exit in 2023, Ember estimates.
What we can say for sure, with all the certainty of hindsight, was that 2022 was a year of bold action - in which energy insecurity catalysed rather than derailed Europe’s electricity transition.
“I think the ferocity of it will probably catch people by surprise,” says Jones, “and really show Europe's electricity transition in hyper drive; in its full light of day how fast it’s actually happening.”