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2017 first time biomass, solar and wind generated more power in the EU than coal and lignite – new study shows

A recently published analysis by policy think-tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende show that the European Union (EU) generated more electricity from renewable sources than coal in 2017, with renewables accounting for over 30 percent of Europe’s electricity for the first time. According to the study, wind, solar and biomass power generation surpassing coal is “incredible progress”, given that coal-fired power generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass just five years ago.

The study, “European Power Sector in 2017: State of Affairs and Review of Current Developments“, which is the fourth annual review of the European power sector by UK-headed think-tank Sandbag – and the second year in a row jointly with Germany-headed think-tank Agora Energiewendesuggests that Germany and the United Kingdom (UK) are currently leading the “onward march” of renewable technologies as both have contributed to 56 percent of the growth in renewables in the past three years (2014-2017).

EU renewables growth has been increasingly reliant on the success story of wind in Germany, the UK and Denmark, which has been inspiring. If all countries in Europe engage in this, 35 percent renewable energy by 2030 is entirely possible. Solar deployment, in particular, is still surprisingly low, and needs to respond to the massive falls in costs, said Matthias Buck Director of European Energy Policy, Agora Energiewende.

Biomass, solar and wind power doubled

Based on public data compiled and evaluated by the authors, the joint study shows that since 2010, the share of wind, solar and biomass electricity in the European Union (EU) has more than doubled. In 2017, wind, sun and biomass, in the EU have for the first time delivered more electricity than hard coal and lignite combined.

Renewables versus coal electricity generation. EUROSTAT data to 2015, 2016 and 2017 are authors own calculations (graphic courtesy Sandbag).

Wind, solar and biomass rose to 20.9 percent of the EU electricity mix, up from just 9.7 percent in 2010, and represents an average growth of 1.7 percentage points per year. The study notes that good wind conditions and huge investment into wind plants led to a massive 19 percent increase in wind generation in 2017 – two-thirds of this was in Germany and the UK.

However, solar power generation grew only by 8 percent despite huge recent technology price drops and, because hydropower production fell sharply in 2017, renewable electricity only achieved a slightly higher share in the EU than in the previous year, rising from 29.8 to 30.0 percent of electricity production.

The strongest percentage growth was recorded in Denmark: in 2017, 74 percent of the electricity produced there came from wind, solar and biomass, a rise of seven percentage points. The study also highlights how individual companies are increasingly leading the transition to a low-carbon economy – Denmark-headed Ørsted (previously DONG Energy) announced in February 2017 that it would phase out coal by 2023.

The authors suggest that renewables could provide a third of Europe’s electricity in 2018, and may account for 36 percent of Europe’s power demand by 2020 – up from 20 percent in 2010.

Uneven decarbonisation

However, the study also illustrates the uneven nature of decarbonisation across Europe, strong growth in a few countries is contrasted with very low growth in many other EU countries. The lion’s share of the recent gains was mainly due to Germany and the UK.

The authors noted “anaemic growth” throughout the decade observed in Slovenia, Bulgaria, France, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary whereas other countries had good growth at the start of the decade, but then gave up on renewables with almost no growth in the last three years, like Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Greece.

Exceptions are Croatia and Romania, where the share of power from wind, solar and biomass has been growing since 2011 from low single digits to 18 (Croatia) and 16 percent (Romania), respectively. Six countries still had less than 10 percent of their electricity production from wind, solar and biomass in 2017: these are Slovenia (4 percent), Bulgaria (7 percent), France (8 percent), Slovakia (8 percent), Czech Republic (8 percent) and Hungary (10 percent).

On fossil energy, the study finds mixed developments. Hard coal power generation fell by 7 percent because of higher wind generation, and with coal phase-outs announced in Netherlands, Italy and Portugal, hard coal generation will continue to fall. However, lignite generation rose slightly, and retirements are scant; meaning the route away from lignite is far from assured.

Sector’s carbon emissions stable

Despite the increase in wind and solar energy, the authors point out that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of the European electricity sector did not fall in 2017, remaining stable at 1 019 million tonnes.

The study forecasts emissions within the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) rose for the first time since 2010, from 1 750 million tonnes in 2016 to 1 756 million tonnes (graphic courtesy Sandbag).

The authors suggest that a combination of three factors has led to this:

  • Firstly, the production of electricity from hydropower has fallen to a Europe-wide low, mainly due to low rainfall and snowfall
  • Secondly, nuclear power plants in France and Germany delivered less electricity than in previous years
  • Thirdly, electricity consumption in the EU has grown for the third year in a row, up by 0.7 percent in 2017

As CO2 emissions have even risen beyond the electricity sector, the authors forecast emissions within the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) rose for the first time since 2010, from 1 750 million tonnes in 2016 to 1 756 million tonnes. However, oil and gas consumption outside the EU ETS also rose, so Sandbag and Agora Energiewende forecast a rise in total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of around 1 percent.

With electricity consumption rising for the third year, countries need to reassess their efforts on energy efficiency. But to make the biggest difference to emissions, countries need to retire coal plants. We forecast Europe’s 258 operational coal plants last year emitted 38 percent of all EU ETS emissions or 15 percent of total EU greenhouse gases. In 2017, Netherlands, Italy and Portugal added their names to the list of countries to phase-out coal, which is great progress. We need a fast and complete coal phase-out in Europe: the thought of charging electric cars in the 2030’s with coal just doesn’t compute, said Dave Jones, Energy Analyst at Sandbag.

In order to achieve the EU’s 2030 renewable energy target, the EU will need to increase its efforts in deploying renewables in the coming years compared to recent trends.

Especially in Central and South-Eastern Europe, but also in Spain and Greece, much more is possible because the climatic conditions favour renewable energies, commented Mattias Buck adding that Agora Energiewende has recently proposed a guarantee program to significantly reduce the financing cost for renewable energy projects in these countries.

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