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Wind, solar power outstrip fossil fuel generation for EU

Coal cooked, gas dissipating as renewables power up

Take that, energy crisis: Wind and solar power generation rose to record levels in the EU last year, overtaking natural gas as an electricity source for the first time and preventing a wider return to coal.

UK energy think tank Ember said in its 2023 European Electricity Review that wind and solar power generated 22 percent of the EU's electricity last year, marking the first time the renewables surpassed natural gas, while also maintaining a lead over coal-fired power despite a slight increase in that manner of generation last year.

When Russia cut off supplies of natural gas in response to sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, the report said, the EU's response was to "accelerate its electricity transition".

The shocks of 2022 only caused a huge wave of support for renewables

That acceleration saw solar power generation in the EU rise by a record 39TWh in 2022 - a 24 percent YoY increase. Solar installations in the EU rose by 47 percent last year, the report said. 

But wider energy transition plans were derailed by a Europe-wide drought that caused hydroelectricity to fall to its lowest levels in 20 years, and poorly-timed maintenance among France's aging nuclear power fleet. Fears emerged that additional coal plants would need to be brought online to offset shortages, but that scenario never came to pass.

A warm winter meant that the coal plants reactivated in the EU went largely idle, and only saw an average of 18 percent utilization through Q4 2022, Ember said. Of the 26 plants brought online, nine saw zero utilization, Ember said, though coal power generation still rose by seven percent between 2021 and 2022. 

Collectively, all these numbers mean that any fear - or possibility - of a rebound for coal-fired electricity generation should be considered dead, said report author and Ember's Head of Data Insights, Dave Jones. 

"Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis. The shocks of 2022 only caused a minor ripple in coal power and a huge wave of support for renewables," Jones said. 

In the coming year, the report predicts, hydro power generation is likely to rebound, French nuclear facilities will come back online, and wind and solar deployments will continue to accelerate. 

"Europe is set to witness a huge fall in fossil fuels," the report states. 

Globally, 2021 marked the first year wind and solar fulfilled 10 percent of worldwide electricity needs, but fossil fuel generation rose that year as well.

Nuclear plants provided the same amount of power for the EU - 22 percent - that wind and solar did last year, with most of that coming from France. With French nuclear power stations offline for maintenance, and Germany shutting down some of its plants in the past couple of years, Ember isn't predicting a significant increase in EU nuclear power generation next year.

The 31-member International Energy Agency has said it believes there's no practical path to net-zero carbon emissions goals that doesn't run straight through expanded use of nuclear energy.

Regardless of future decisions on energy generation sources, Ember said that the past winter proved one thing: reliance on fossil fuels as a fallback isn't sustainable.

Gas and coal "cause skyrocketing electricity prices and energy insecurity," Ember said, urging EU policymakers to "step up to ensure the right policies, investments and infrastructure are in place" to enable a shift away from dependency on coal and gas. ®

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