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The EU Runs on Wind and Solar Power

Feb. 13, 2023
The rush to cut dependence on Russian fossil fuel imports is one key driver behind a boom in wind and solar power across the European Union.

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As countries around the globe work to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels as power sources, the European Union (EU) crossed a major milestone in 2022 when it began relying more heavily on wind and solar power than any other source. An economic and political union comprising 27 different countries, the EU has generated less coal power and is expected to further reduce its fossil fuel generation by 20% this year.

“Coal generation has been falling since the start of winter, and as the electricity transition heats up, falling fossil fuel power—especially gas—is set to be the story of 2023,” Ember reports in European Electricity Review 2023. “Europe’s political response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was to accelerate its electricity transition. There is now a focus on rapidly cutting gas demand—at the same time as phasing out coal. This means a massive scale-up in clean energy is on its way.”

22% of EU’s Energy is Wind and Solar

In 2022, wind and solar generated a record one-fifth of EU electricity (22%), for the first time overtaking fossil gas (20%), and remaining above coal power (16%), the company reports. The momentum is expected to continue in 2023 as hydro generation rebounds, French nuclear units return, wind and solar deployments accelerate and electricity demand continues to fall.

“In 2023, Europe is set to witness a huge fall in fossil fuels— of coal power, yes, but especially gas power,” reports Ember, which also learned that:

  • Europe’s coal power is receding. Coal generation fell in all four of the final months of 2022. It dropped by 6% (−9.6 TWh) from September to December compared to the same months in 2021. This was primarily caused by less demand for electricity.
  • Electricity demand started to fall fast. It dropped by 7.9% during the final quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year—similar to the 9.6% fall witnessed in 2020 when Europe was in lockdown due to COVID. “This trend was observed in all EU countries,” Ember reports. “Prior to October [2022], the [drop] was much less notable.”  
  • Solar is on the cusp of even more greatness. In 2022, the EU’s solar generation rose by a record 39 TWh (+24%) in 2022, helping to avoid €10 billion in gas costs. This was due to record installations of 41 GW in 2022—a full 47% more than was added in 2021. Twenty EU countries achieved their highest-ever share of solar electricity, Ember reports, with the Netherlands as the leader. The country produced 14% of its power from solar, overtaking coal generation for the first time. 
  • Gas generation will decline further this year. Ember says EU fossil generation rose 3% in 2022 but says that increase “won’t be repeated” in 2023. In fact, fossil generation could plummet by 20% in 2023, double the previous record from 2020. “Coal generation will fall, but gas generation will fall the fastest, since it is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025 based on current forward prices,” the company predicts.

Addressing the Energy Crisis

There’s no doubt that 2022 was a challenging year for the EU on numerous different fronts. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created massive shockwaves and caused an unprecedented energy crisis, which in turn fueled a crippling hike in living costs,” Ember states in its report. “One outcome has been a rush to cut dependence on Russian fossil fuel imports.”

In fact, Ember’s Dave Jones told CarbonBrief  that the report’s findings point to a direct correlation between that energy crisis and Europe’s electricity transition. “Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well,” Jones said. “Europe is hurtling towards a clean, electrified economy and this will be on full display in 2023. Change is coming fast, and everyone needs to be ready for it.”

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.