Wind and solar power generated a record 22.3% of the European Union’s electricity in 2022, overtaking fossil gas, with 19.9%, for the first time, according to the European Electricity Review published Tuesday by energy think tank Ember.
As Europe scrambled to cut most of its gas imports from its biggest supplier, Russia, and was faced with the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear generation in at least two decades, the shift away from fossil fuels was put on hold, Ember said.
“A 1-in-500 year drought across Europe led to the lowest level of hydro generation since at least 2000, and there were widespread unexpected French nuclear outages just as German nuclear units were closing. This created a large 185 terawatt-hours gap in generation equal to 7% of Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022,” the analysis revealed.
The EU’s nuclear power generation dropped by 16% last year, and of this, 69% was in France from outages and 27% was as the result of German nuclear plants.
Record rises in wind and solar power generation helped cushion the hydro and nuclear deficit. Power generation from solar rose the fastest, increasing by a record 39 terawatt-hours, or 24%, in 2022.
According to the analysis, this was almost twice its previous record, which helped save €10 billion ($10.8 billion) in gas costs.
“That mirrored the 25% rise in capacity from 168 gigawatts to 209 gigawatts. New installations rose by a record 41 gigawatts in 2022, which was 47% more than was installed in 2021,” the analysis said.
A total of 20 EU countries set new records in power generation from solar in 2022, with the Netherlands being the leader, as it produced 14% of its power from solar, which overtook coal generation for the first time.
Electricity generation from natural gas was almost unchanged, up 0.8% last year compared to 2021, despite record-high prices.
Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF) natural gas prices had skyrocketed to €342 per megawatt-hour as of Aug. 26, 2022, a dramatic rise from the €30/MWh level a year earlier. Prices went down by over 80% in the last five months, trading at €57.2//MWh for February 2023 contracts.
Ember said that fossil gas generated 19.9% of EU electricity in 2022, up from 19% the previous year, but this trend is expected to change drastically in the coming year.
– Electricity generation from coal up 7%, leading 3.9% rise in EU’s power sector emissions
“Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” said Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones. “The shocks of 2022 only caused a minor ripple in coal power and a huge wave of support for renewables. Any fears of a coal rebound are now dead.”
Coal power’s share increased by 1.5% to produce 16% of EU electricity last year, with a year-on-year fall in the last four months of 2022 as “Europe prevented a threatened return to coal power in the wake of the 2022 energy crisis,” according to the analysis.
One-sixth of the nuclear and hydro deficit was met by coal.
As power generation from coal rose by 7%, or 28 terawatt-hours, the EU’s power sector emissions increased by 3.9%, 26 million tons of CO2 last year, compared to 2021.
The 26 coal power units placed on emergency standby for winter ran at an average of 18% capacity, and despite importing 22 million tons of extra coal in 2022, the EU used a third of it, according to the analysis.
“It could have been much worse. Wind, solar and a fall in electricity demand prevented a much larger return to coal. In context, coal’s rise was not substantial. Coal power remained below 2018 levels and added only 0.3% to global coal generation,” said the analysis.
– EU’s power demand down due to mild weather
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal of the European Commission, said on the analysis that there is a remarkable acceleration in the pace with which renewable energy is being built.
“Especially for offshore wind and rooftop solar the numbers are impressive. It is clear that European citizens want to benefit from cheap, clean energy. Europeans know that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Renewables are crucial to tackle the climate crisis and cut air pollution. They are also crucial to end our dependence on Russian fossil fuels,” he said.
“The ongoing energy crisis will still bring another difficult winter, but the more renewables we have, the more sovereign we are in our energy supply.”
The EU’s electricity demand declined by 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year, or down 56 terawatt-hours, as the mild weather was a deciding factor.
Thus, the EU generated 32% of its power from nuclear and hydro, 22.3% from wind and solar, 19.9% from fossil gas, 16% from coal and 9.8% from other sources in 2022.
“Europe’s clean power transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever,” said Dave Jones.
“Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well. The energy crisis has undoubtedly sped up Europe’s electricity transition. 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.”
Europe built 15 gigawatts of new wind farms last year, said Giles Dickson, CEO of WindEurope.
“That is not too bad, given the challenges the wind industry faced last year. But much more is needed to meet Europe’s renewables targets. REPowerEU has started to simplify the long and complex permitting procedures, good,” he said.
“But the EU must also ramp up its clean energy industrial policy and get its market design right so that Europe becomes an attractive place for renewables investments again. The Net Zero Industries Act needs to strengthen the wind energy supply chain and support investments in turbine and component manufacturing, ports, grids and vessels,” Dickson noted.
– Power generation from gas set for record drop in 2023
Europe’s transition to wind and solar is expected to accelerate further in response to the energy crisis while hydro and France’s nuclear output will recover this year, according to Ember’s analysis.
Ember estimates that fossil fuel generation could plummet by 20% this year, double the previous record from 2020.
“Coal generation will fall, but gas generation, which is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025, will fall the fastest,” it said in the analysis.
The power sector is likely to be the fastest falling segment of gas demand during 2023 as it helps bring calm to European gas markets.