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Renewable Energy Beats Fossil Fuels Across Europe in 2020

Last year, for the first time, renewables generated more energy than fossil fuels across the EU, brought on by new ventures in the field of solar and wind power.

Within 12 months, 38 percent of Europe's energy was provided by renewable sources, while 37 percent came from fossil fuels. The key cause of decarbonization was investment in wind and solar power, with wind generation rising by 9 percent and solar by 15 percent, making up a total of 51 additional terawatt-hours (TWh) of renewable energy.

U.K. think tank Ember and the German think tank Agora Energiewende report that Germany and Spain generated more energy from renewable energy than from fossil fuels for the first time at the national level.

Unfortunately, in reviewing their results, the think tanks have reported that the energy transition is too slow to achieve the EU goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and, eventually, carbon neutrality by 2050. To meet its 2030 goal, Europe will need to install 100 terawatt-hours of renewable generation each year, almost twice as many per year as the amount added in 2020.

Although coal generation has halved since 2015 and decreased further by 20 percent in 2020, considering the lower energy needs correlated with the coronavirus pandemic, gas generation fell just 4 percent last year.

However, the results suggest that electricity production in the EU was 29 percent cleaner overall last year than it was in 2015.

“Wind and solar are really beginning to transform Europe's electricity system,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s senior electricity analyst. “They provided on average a fifth of Europe's electricity last year, but across certain countries and certain hours, the penetration is even higher.”

Since 2015, wind and solar energy have been the primary explanation for the halving of coal generation, contributing to a rapid decrease in CO2 emissions - Jones further added.

However, could it be true that 2020 was actually an anomaly, affected by the coronavirus pandemic? Jones stated it wasn't apparent yet.

“It's going to be close to whether there is a small rebound in fossil fuels in 2021 in Europe,” he said. “My money is for it to show another fall, and new wind and solar make up for the pick-up in electricity demand to pre-covid levels. If there is a small pickup in 2021, it will be small and temporary.”

Notably, nuclear generation has also declined by a historic 10%. This was mostly the result of nuclear power plants closing in Sweden and Germany while being temporarily offline in France and Belgium.

As more countries such as Germany, Belgium and Spain have phased out nuclear power entirely, Ember and Agora said that total nuclear generation is likely to decrease further in the 2020s.

“Post-pandemic economic recovery must not slow down climate action,” said Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende, which co-authored the report. “We, therefore, need strong climate policy such as in the Green Deal—to ensure steady progress.”

Graichen emphasized that, despite rapid progress on renewables, far more was required. “Almost a tripling is needed to reach the 100 terawatt hours of annual additions required for climate neutrality,” he said.

So what should be done about the remaining fossil fuel-hungry nations of Europe? Dave Jones said that the image was quickly shifting.

“If you asked that question three years ago, the answer would be Germany, Spain and Netherlands,” he said, referring to the countries that were until recently large emitters of greenhouse gases. “But they have collapsed coal generation already and they’ve got plans to phase it out to zero. Poland is close to now being Europe’s coal generator, and Czechia is number three, so it’s clear these two countries need to step up now.”

More good news is on the horizon for decarbonization advocates, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicting a dramatic increase in wind capacity installations throughout the EU in 2021, including significant increases in France, Poland and Denmark. Solar is expected to rise even faster, by as much as 16 percent, with massive photovoltaic solar installations set to open this year in France and Germany. All in all, the deployment of renewables is projected to rise year-on-year until at least 2025.


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