For the first time, the European Union generated more electricity from wind, solar and biomass than from coal in 2017, according to new analysis from two thinktanks.
The figures, from London-based Sandbag and Berlin-based Agora Energiewende, are a best estimate, based on near-complete electricity market data from each of the 28 EU member states.
Their report states: “This is incredible progress, considering just five years ago coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass.”
Despite this new milestone, EU power sector emissions were unchanged in 2017, the analysis suggests. Low-carbon sources met 56% of demand, a figure that is unchanged since 2014.
Wind, solar and biomass now supply more than a fifth of the electricity generated in the EU, at 20.9%, up from less than 10% in 2010. This is a few tenths of a percent more than coal (20.6%) and also more than gas (19.7%). Since 2010, output from these renewable sources increased by 377TWh, more than the UK’s current total annual demand. Most of this increase is due to wind (57%) and solar (25%), with a smaller contribution from biomass (18%).
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Another significant milestone was crossed in 2017 with wind generation overtaking hydro for the first time. The US is expected to see a similar switch this year or next.
This coming of age for newer renewables has been matched by falling coal output, down 25% in five years. There was a particularly steep fall in 2016, as a huge coal-to-gas switch across the bloc helped push EU power sector CO2 emissions down by nearly 5%. This year, EU coal generation fell 3%.
Air pollution rules, ageing capacity, stagnant demand and competition from gas, as well as renewables, have spelt trouble for the finances of the EU’s coal fleet. In the UK, a top-up carbon tax has been significant in driving coal’s decline.
The UK is among six EU member states to have announced coal phaseouts. It recently confirmed plans to close its remaining coal plants by 2025. It has been joined by France, with a 2021 phaseout, as well as Italy, by 2025, with the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal following, in 2030.
The Netherlands’ move is notable, because coal still supplies a quarter of its electricity and its remaining coal-fired plants were mostly built only two or three years ago.
Germany and Denmark are among a further six member states discussing the idea of a coal phaseout. While the likes of Poland are far from considering a coal phaseout, its energy minister says no new coal plants will be built beyond those already under construction. Some 157 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity remains operational across the EU.
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EU member states each have unique electricity mixes. These result from geography – the natural resources available in each place – and from government policy.
Notable features include that Germany is still the fourth most coal-dependent EU country, deriving 40.5% of the electricity it consumes from coal, despite getting another 36% from renewables. Wind, solar and biomass met 65% of Danish demand last year, far ahead of Germany, its nearest rival.
Apart from Denmark, the UK is the most-improved in terms of cutting coal use and increasing its renewable share. Coal’s share fell from 28% in 2010 to 7% in 2017, while wind, solar and biomass increased from 6 to 21%.
–Source: Carbon Brief