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Europe: Renewable Energy Sources Overtook Fossil Fuels in 2020

Annie Grey celebrates as renewables overtake fossil fuels in supplying EU's electricity.

Photo by Luo Lei

Renewable sources overtook fossil fuels to become the EU’s main source of electricity for the first time in 2020, according to a report co-published by Ember and Agora Energiewendie.

This important environmental milestone was documented as fossil fuel usage in the EU decreased by 37 percent. Subsequently, the use of wind, solar, hydropower, and biomass provided 38 percent of the continent’s electricity, up from 34.6 percent in 2019.

The Rise of Renewables

In a year that witnessed pandemic restrictions temporarily reducing energy demand across Europe, the drop in supply mostly affected expensive power from fossil fuels. Gas generation dropped only 4 percent in 2020 despite the low energy demand reported, as it remained the cheapest form of fossil generation. Most of the fall in fossil fuels was in the use of coal rather than gas. Figures show gas usage is still 14 percent higher than in 2015, as Greece, the Netherlands, and Poland saw gas generation growth.

Coal generation, however, has halved since 2015, with a further 20 percent decline reported in the last year. Half of the drop was due to a decrease in electricity demand, which fell by 4 percent following the impact of the pandemic, and half was because of additional wind and solar resources.

The utilisation of wind and solar power, the largest factors in the clean-energy switch, rose 15 and nine percent respectively. However, as electricity demand bounces back in 2021, wind and solar will need to rise at a faster rate if the recent falls in coal usage are to be sustained.

The report suggested that wind and solar are “effectively replacing coal, rather than gas, across Europe currently”, which shows a need for increased focus on the reduction of gas usage. Nonetheless, the findings indicate that the EU’s electricity production was overall 29 percent cleaner last year than it was in 2015.

The EU’s Climate Target Plan

The EU Climate Target Plan proposes a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. This is a substantial increase in ambition compared to the previous target of at least 40%.

However, following the report’s findings, the energy transition is still too slow to achieve this, raising concerns as to whether the EU will be able to fulfil its 2030 target, and consequently reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Biomass growth has effectively “stalled” since 2018, according to think tanks. There hasn’t been much change in hydropower either – while generation was up from 2019, that was due to precipitation changes, rather than new installations.

The think tank, Ember, proposed that the EU will need to add 100 terawatt hours of renewable generation every year to achieve its 2030 target. Comparatively, wind and solar increased by 51 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2020 - well-above the 38 TWh/year average of the last decade - but renewable generation will need to almost triple to reach Europe’s 2030 target, according to the report.

Reassuringly, limited impact from Covid-19 was identified on the overall trend of moving from fossil fuels to renewables, proving the rise in renewable energy to be robust despite the economic repercussions of the pandemic. In fact, findings suggested that the fall in fossil-fired electricity could have been more dramatic, had it not been for such a bounce-back in demand.

To ensure steady progress, Dr. Patrick Graichen, Director of Agora Energiewende, stressed the need for strong climate policies, stating: “The economic recovery after the pandemic must not be allowed to slow down climate protection”.

Although Europe has reached this environmental milestone, the future of green power is at a crucial tipping point. At the start of a decade in which vital climate action will be fundamentally necessary, the continuation of rapid growth in wind and solar power is of the upmost importance in ensuring Europe gets on course to meet its 2030 Climate Targets.


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