For the very first time, the European Union is generating more energy from renewables than from fossil fuels.
A newly published report confirms that in 2020, wind, solar, hydropower and biomass shouldered 38 percent of the EU’s electricity demands, while fossil fuels trailed at 37 percent.
These two broad categories of power are now neck and neck, and while we’re headed in the right direction, the EU still has a long way to go to meet its green deal targets.
Energy analysts say this monumental switch-a-roo has mainly been driven by a rapid growth in wind and solar, which have “forced coal into decline” by 20 percent in 2020. That’s a sizeable drop, yet if the EU wants to meet its looming climate goals, experts say solar and wind growth will need to triple in the next nine years.
“It is significant that Europe has reached this landmark moment at the start of a decade of global climate action,” explains lead author Dave Jones, senior electricity analyst for Ember, an independent climate think-tank focusing on the global electricity transition.
“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.”
The culmination of global climate action is finally starting to show. Around the world, renewable forms of energy are at last beginning to dethrone fossil fuels. In 2019, Scotland generated so much wind energy, the power could have supported double the population.
That same year, the United Kingdom hit another major milestone. For the first time in 137 years, the nation generated more power from wind farms, solar panels, biomass and hydropower plants than coal, oil and natural gas.
Not to be outdone, in 2020, the United States consumed more renewable energy than coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began.
Europe has now joined the fray, with nearly every country seeing a drop in coal production.
Even individual countries, like Germany and Spain, have seen renewables outpace fossil fuels for the first time.
Since 2015, the authors of the report say coal’s fall has made Europe’s electricity 29 percent cleaner, and this has mainly been driven by wind and solar energy.
When it comes to wind energy, Europe is ahead of the game, generating nearly a third of the world’s total wind capacity. In 2020 alone, wind energy in Europe rose by 9 percent, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium contributing the most growth. Solar energy, on the other hand, rose by 15 percent.
In the EU, however, natural gas is still very much a part of the picture. And while this form of energy slipped by four percent last year, it’s up by 14 percent since 2015.
Some scientists and environmentalists are concerned by this trend, as natural gas still contributes to global warming, albeit much less so than burning coal. Others see it as a necessary bridge to renewable energy.
As such, Greece, the Netherlands, and Poland all saw gas generation rise in 2020, and it’s not clear if renewables are making enough headway to slow this down.
“So although wind and solar is replacing coal, no country has yet seen wind and solar starting to significantly replace gas generation,” the report explains.
The EU is hoping to reach climate neutrality by 2050, but from the looks of things, we are not on track. The pandemic has hardly helped.
In 2020, renewable energy continued to rise despite great uncertainty, but researchers say the fall in fossil-fired electricity “could have been even more dramatic, had it not been for such a bounce-back in electricity demand and the worst year on record for nuclear generation.”
Nuclear energy generation fell by 10 percent in 2020. Without this significant drop, we might have even seen less gas generation, and perhaps a greater drop in coal consumption.
“The economic recovery after the pandemic must not be allowed to slow down climate protection,” says Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende – a think tank devoted to renewable energy.
“We therefore need strong climate policies, such as the Green Deal, to ensure steady progress.”
The report is largely good news, but it’s not time to celebrate just yet. We still have a lot of work to do.
The report was co-published by Ember and Agora Energiewende.