It’s official: in the first half of 2020, and for the first time, Europe generated more electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. Not only that, but electricity is proving cheaper in countries that have more renewables.
From January to June, wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy generated 40% of the electricity across the EU’s 27 member states, while fossil fuels generated 34%. In the United States, by way of contrast, fossil fuels generated more than 62% of electricity last year, while renewables accounted for less than 18%.
The EU figures, gathered and analyzed by U.K. climate think-tank Ember, represent a rapid acceleration in the decarbonization of the bloc’s electricity supply. Just five years ago, Europe generated twice as much electricity from coal as it did from wind and solar. Now, coal makes up just 12% of the EU-27’s electricity generation, while wind and solar alone provide 21%.
The rosy results for green energy are in part a result of unique conditions: a reduction in activity caused by the coronavirus crisis caused a 7% drop in energy demand, while plenty of sunny and windy weather in the first half of the year benefited solar and wind generation.
More broadly, the figures reflect the results of national energy policies, resulting in a 32% drop in electricity generated from coal across the EU. Austria and Sweden closed their last remaining coal-fired power plants in March, while Spain closed its coal fleet in June. Portugal’s coal generation fell a whopping 95%, and Greece’s dropped by a half. In Germany, Europe’s most populous country, electricity from coal dropped 39%—the largest fall in absolute terms, representing 31 terawatt hours—more than the entire electricity production of some EU countries.
Electricity production from natural gas also dropped across the bloc, by 6%.
While fossil fuels produced less electricity, renewables produced a lot more. Wind and solar generated an astonishing 64% of Denmark’s total generation. In Ireland the wind and sun produced 49% of electricity, and in Germany they accounted for 42%.
Meanwhile, contrary to the oft-raised contention of the fossil fuel lobby that renewable energy generation is intermittent and unreliable, ENTSOE, Europe’s association of energy producers, said there were no interruptions to supply, and that none are forecast.
Additionally, the figures reveal that countries with large renewable energy fleets typically enjoyed cheaper electricity than their fossil-fueled counterparts: in coal-dependent Poland, wholesale electricity prices came to €40 ($46) per megawatt hour, while in neighboring Germany, that price was just €23 ($26) per megawatt hour.
Speaking to Forbes.com, Dave Jones, the report’s lead author and Ember’s senior electricity analyst, said the results were exciting.
“Wind turbines and solar panels produced 22% of Europe’s electricity in the first half of this year, rising from 13% in 2016—quite a rise in just four years,” he said. “I’d say that’s pretty cool progress. It’s also exciting that they are replacing the dirtiest fuel, coal.”
What did the countries that performed best on renewables have in common? Jones says the key is consistency.
“Denmark is by far the most advanced because it started building early, and continued building, and has a plan to 2030 to build more. The amount of investment needed is so big that companies need to know there is a market for the next half a decade or more, to transform themselves,” he said.
On the other hand, Jones explained, inconsistency can lead to high energy prices—as has happened in the Czech Republic. “There they built a lot of renewables in one to two years very expensively, because they didn’t attract companies to invest for the long-term,” he said.
The second commonality among the best-performing countries is to play to your strengths. Jones pointed to the U.K. Conservative government’s commitment to build 40 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, to capitalize on Britain’s windy coasts (total peak winter demand in the UK is only 55 gigawatts). “In Spain, where it’s obviously sunny, they stepped up to be Europe’s biggest installer of solar last year, and have big plans to increase that by 2030,” he added.
Some European countries, however, are doing less well when it comes to decarbonizing electricity—most obviously Poland, which for the first time this year produced more electricity from coal than did Germany. Jones said Poland was “really lacking a plan of ambition … you need a route off coal, to be able to plan for the coal regions so that no-one is left behind, and work on that is just starting.”
While the overall figures will be encouraging for renewable energy proponents and environmentalists, they also reveal weaknesses that will need to be addressed as Europe’s energy grids decarbonize still further.
One of the major challenges is that of flexibility—most particularly when renewables are generating too much electricity at times of low demand. This creates negative energy prices, which are costly for operators engaged in trying to find ways to balance their grids. “Flexibilities are complicated to address,” Jones said. “You need more storage, to change market design, make power plants more flexible, and bring in incentives for customers to shape their demand. Perhaps the most underused flexibility in Europe is to find a way to simply turn off wind and solar when it’s not needed.”
As to the bigger picture, Jones said the figures show just how rapidly the transition to renewables is taking place, and that Europe is in essence acting as a large-scale laboratory to show the world what can be done.
“Europe gets over double the global average of its electricity from wind and solar, so it’s a great test bed, and so far the results are very good,” he said. “Countries shouldn’t be afraid to step up investment to transition from coal into wind and solar.”
Looking ahead, the message that the EU energy data sends is clear: to achieve a low-carbon future, plan and invest now. That means using COVID stimulus and recovery packages to decarbonize infrastructure and build flexibility into the system by means of energy storage and smart grids. In the EU, the €40 billion ($46 billion) Just Transition Fund is intended to help achieve that. Britain, despite sailing away from the EU into uncharted waters, is kind of, sort of making the right noises about a green recovery.
But climate change is a global problem, and it won’t be solved by Europe alone. If the EU is to be the test bed for low-carbon economies, the international community needs to pay close attention.