It’s official: for the first time, Europe has generated more electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.
From January to June this year, wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy generated 40% of the electricity across the EU’s member states, while fossil fuels generated 34%.
(By way of contrast, fossil fuels generated more than 62% of electricity in the US last year, while renewables accounted for less than 18%)
The rosy results for green energy in Europe are in part a result of unique conditions - a reduction in activity caused by the coronavirus crisis plus plenty of sunny and windy weather in the first half of 2020 - but more broadly, the figures reflect the results of national energy policies, totaling in a 32% drop in electricity generated from coal across the EU.
While fossil fuels produced less electricity, renewables produced a lot more. Wind turbines and solar panels produced 22% of Europe’s electricity in the first half of this year, rising from 13% in 2016—pretty cool progress and exciting that they are replacing the dirtiest fuel, coal.
Here are the key takeaways on how European Renewables crushed fossil fuels:
- Consistency is key
Denmark is by far the most advanced country in terms of renewables because it started building early, and continued building, and has a plan to 2030 to build more. The amount of investment needed to decarbonise infrastructure is so big that companies need to know there is a market for the next half a decade or more, to transform themselves.
Inconsistency can lead to high energy prices, as has happened in the Czech Republic - they built a lot of renewables in one to two years very expensively, because they didn't attract companies to invest for the long-term.
- Play to your strengths
Whilst no longer in the EU (insert sad breakup comment here), the UK government’s commitment to build 40 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 is a great example of capitalizing on windy coasts. A sunny Spain meanwhile, stepped up to be Europe’s biggest installer of solar last year and there are big plans to increase that by 2030.
- Europe is a large-scale laboratory
The figures show just how rapidly the transition to renewables is taking place, and that Europe is in essence acting as a large-scale laboratory to show the world what can be done.
In 2020 so far, Wind and solar has generated an astonishing 64% of Denmark’s total generation. In Ireland the wind and sun produced 49% of electricity, and in Germany they accounted for 42%.
The report's lead author concludes - “Europe gets over double the global average of its electricity from wind and solar, so it’s a great test bed, and so far the results are very good. Countries shouldn't be afraid to step up investment to transition from coal into wind and solar."
- It's not plain sailing from here
One of the major challenges is that of flexibility - most particularly when renewables are generating too much electricity at times of low demand which creates negative energy prices and are costly for operators engaged in trying to find ways to balance their grids.
More energy storage is needed to change market design, make power plants more flexible, and bring in incentives for customers to shape their demand. Perhaps the most underused flexibility in Europe is to find a way to simply turn off wind and solar when it’s not needed.
Looking ahead, the message coming from the EU is very clear: to achieve a low-carbon future, plan and invest now.
That means using COVID stimulus and recovery packages to decarbonize infrastructure and build flexibility into the system by means of energy storage and smart grids.
Climate change is a global problem, and it won’t be solved by Europe alone. If the EU is to be the test bed for low-carbon economies, the international community needs to pay close attention.
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Austria and Sweden closed their last remaining coal-fired power plants in March, while Spain closed its coal fleet in June. Portugal’s coal generation fell a whopping 95%, and Greece’s dropped by a half. In Germany, Europe’s most populous country, electricity from coal dropped 39%—the largest fall in absolute terms, representing 31 terawatt hours—more than the entire electricity production of some EU countries.