Europe saw its greenest electricity year on record in 2020, according to a new study by think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende entitled The European Power Sector in 2020. For the first time, renewables overtook fossil fuels as the EU’s main source of electricity. Renewables generated 38% of Europe’s electricity in 2020, overtaking the 37% market share generated by fossil fuels.
This transformation has been driven by rapid growth in wind and solar power generation, which have almost doubled since 2015 to deliver one-fifth of EU electricity in 2020. The highest shares of wind and solar were seen in Denmark (61%), Ireland (35%), Germany (33%) and Spain (29%).
Coal power has halved since 2015, driven by structural growth in wind and solar. In 2020 coal generation fell by 20% to deliver just 13% of Europe’s electricity. In comparison, gas generation fell only 4% in 2020. A robust carbon price meant gas generation was the cheapest form of fossil generation, even undercutting lignite for the first time in some months in 2020 in the lignite triangle of Germany, Poland and Czechia.
Europe’s electricity demand was down 4% in 2020, reaching lows in April at the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns. The rise in renewables was robust despite the pandemic, while the fall in fossil fuels was limited by a bounce-back in demand and below-average nuclear generation.
“It is significant that Europe has reached this landmark moment at the start of a decade of global climate action” says Dave Jones, Ember’s senior electricity analyst and the lead author of the report. “Rapid growth in wind and solar has forced coal into decline but this is just the beginning. Europe is relying on wind and solar to ensure not only coal is phased out by 2030, but also to phase out gas generation, replace closing nuclear power plants, and to meet rising electricity demand from electric cars, heat pumps and electrolysers.”
The study revealed that Europe’s electricity is 29% cleaner than in 2015. The carbon intensity of Europe’s electricity generation reached a record low in 2020 of 226 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. “Post-pandemic economic recovery must not slow down climate action,” says Patrick Graichen, Director of Agora Energiewende. “We therefore need strong climate policy — such as in the Green Deal — to ensure steady progress.”
Wind and solar increased by 51 terawatt-hours in 2020. “Roughly a doubling is needed, however, to reach the 100 TWh of annual additions required for climate neutrality,” Graichen explains. The latest National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) of EU member states would only increase that figure to 75 terawatt-hours per year through to 2030.
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Hannah Broadbent, Head of Communications, Ember – firstname.lastname@example.org
Ember is an independent, not-for-profit climate think tank that produces cutting-edge research and high impact, politically viable policies that aim to accelerate the global electricity transition from coal to clean. https://ember-climate.org/
Agora Energiewende develops evidence-based and politically viable strategies for ensuring the success of the clean energy transition in Germany, Europe and the rest of the world. www.agora-energiewende.org
About the research
For the last five years, Ember has published an annual report into the European power sector in conjunction with Agora Energiewende. This report compiles and analyses the full-year 2020 electricity generation of every EU-27 country.
- Renewables: Wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy*
- Fossil fuels: Coal (lignite and hard coal), fossil gas and other fossil fuels. “Other fossil fuels” is predominantly generation from oil and oil products, as well as waste gases, peat and non-renewable waste.
*Note – For the purposes of this report, renewables are classified in line with the IPCC (i.e. including bioenergy). However, there is considerable concern that certain uses of bioenergy (in particular the use of forest biomass to replace coal in power stations) will not deliver the same climate benefits as compared to fossil fuels over climate-relevant timescales as other forms of renewable energy generation (such as wind and solar). For more information please see Ember’s reports: The Burning Issue (June 2020) and Playing with Fire (December 2019).