Wind and solar generated a fifth (22%) of the EU’s electricity in 2022, overtaking gas (20%) for the first time, according to the European Electricity Review by energy think tank Ember. Europe has also avoided the feared return to coal: in fact, the share of energy produced with coal has increased by just 1.5 percentage points, to generate 16% of the EU’s electricity in 2022, with a decrease on an annual basis for the last four months.
“Europe avoided the worst-case scenario of the energy crisis,” said Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember. “The shocks of 2022 have caused only a small ripple in coal power and a huge surge in support for renewables. Any fears of a coal recovery are now dead.”
Europe has overcome the triple crisis
According to Ember’s analysis, in 2022 Europe faced a triple crisis of the electricity sector. Even as it scrambled to cut ties with its main supplier of fossil gas, it faced the lowest levels of hydroelectric and nuclear power in at least two decades, which created a deficit of 7% of the Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022.
Record growth in wind and solar has helped ease the deficit in hydro and nuclear. Solar generation has seen the fastest growth, with a record 39 TWh (+24%) in 2022 – almost double the previous record – which helped avoid €10 billion in gas costs. Twenty EU countries set new solar energy records in 2022.
Declining electricity demand also helped reduce the deficit. Electricity demand in the EU fell by 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period of the previous year (-56 TWh), approaching the 9.6% drop (-61 TWh) recorded in the second quarter of 2020, when lockdowns were first imposed across much of Europe. Mild weather was a factor, but cost pressures are likely to have played a role, along with energy efficiency improvements and citizens acting in solidarity to reduce energy demand in a time of crisis .
Only one-sixth of the nuclear and hydroelectric deficits were covered by coal. Coal generation increased by 7% (+28 TWh). As a result, emissions from the sector increased by 3.9% (+26 MtCO2) in 2022 compared to 2021. It could have been much worse: wind, solar and falling electricity demand have prevented a return to coal much more consistent. In context, the rise in coal has not been substantial: Coal-fired power remained below 2018 levels and added just 0.3% to global coal production.
Coal-fired generation in the EU declined in all four final months of 2022, down 6% year-on-year. The 26 coal-fired units placed on emergency standby for the winter operated at only 18% capacity on average. Although the EU imported an extra 22 million tonnes of coal in 2022, it used only a third of it. Countries are committed to phasing out coal as they were before the crisis.
Perhaps most surprisingly, gas generation remained almost unchanged (+0.8%) in 2022 compared to 2021, despite record prices. Gas generated 20% of the EU’s electricity in 2022, up from 19% the previous year. However, this trend is expected to change dramatically in the coming year.
Gas generation will drop dramatically in 2023
The latest industry indications suggest that in 2023 Europe’s transition to wind and solar will accelerate in response to the energy crisis, while French hydro and nuclear will recover. As a result, Ember estimates that fossil-fired power generation could fall 20 percent in 2023, double the previous record in 2020. Coal-fired generation will decline, but gas-fired generation, which is projected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025, will be the one that will decrease rapidly.
“Europe’s energy transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever,” said Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember. “Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, but now they are also striving to phase out gas. The energy crisis has undoubtedly accelerated Europe’s electricity transition. Europe is racing towards a clean and electrified economy, and this will be fully visible in 2023. Change is coming fast and everyone must be ready”.