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EU leads on wind and solar electricity with double the world average share

The EU’s electricity transition is giving valuable insights into how quickly the world can transition to clean electricity

Key findings

1

Wind and solar grew to generate almost a fifth of the EU’s electricity, twice the global average.

Wind and solar generation rose robustly in 2020 by 14% in the EU. This meant that wind and solar produced almost a fifth (19.6%) of the EU’s electricity last year, up from 13% in 2015. That’s twice the world average of 9.4%, and leads amongst all G20 countries: India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the US (12%) and Turkey (12%). Only the United Kingdom was higher, at 29%. It was as high as 62% in Denmark and 33% in Germany. 2021 is expected to see record amounts of both wind and solar installed in the EU.

2

Europe’s coal phase-out steps up.

Coal fell by 20% in 2020, and is now almost half (-48%) the level of 2015; one of the fastest falls of any G20 member. Over five years, the fall has helped to reduce the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions by about 7%. However, the impact has been muted, as some of the coal fall has been caused by a rise in gas generation.

3

Landmark moment as renewables overtakes fossils.

Renewables rose to generate 38% of Europe’s electricity in 2020 (compared to 35% in 2019), overtaking fossil-fired generation for the first time. Of the G20, only hydro-dependent Brazil and Canada previously had more generation from renewables than from fossil fuels. The rise in renewables was driven by wind and solar, and the fall in fossil fuels was driven by the fall in coal. Gas generation fell by 5% in 2020, but was still 37% higher than in 2015. With that increased level of gas, 37% of Europe’s electricity still came from fossil fuels in 2020.

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 replace closing nuclear power plants, and to meet rising electricity demand from electric cars, heat pumps and electrolysers. Europe is a hot-bed of innovation in building and integrating huge amounts of intermittent renewable electricity into the electricity grid, which is giving confidence on how the world can transition more rapidly to clean electricity.”

Dave Jones

Global Programme Lead, Ember

Author: Dave Jones

 

Sections:

Trends 2015-2020

Trends in 2020

Comparison with G20

Concluding remarks

EU-27’s electricity transition in spotlight: 2015-2020

EU leads the world with double the rate of wind and solar

Wind and solar, but also gas, took market share from coal

Coal generation almost halved in five years

2020 was a landmark moment, where renewable electricity overtook fossil electricity for the first time in Europe. Coal has halved in just five years, and around half of that fall was as wind and solar increased. However, coal only fell that fast because gas generation also picked up across the last five years. A country-based analysis of Europe’s transition is explained in more detail in Ember’s report “The EU Power Sector in 2020” published in January 2021.

Wind and solar produced a fifth (19.6%) of Europe’s electricity in 2020; that’s double the global average (9.7%). Wind and solar have been driving the growth in renewables as other sources stay static: bioenergy growth has slowed to near-zero in the last five years, and there is near-zero new hydro-electricity capacity added. Although wind and solar deployment saw no records in 2020, it’s possible that this will change in 2021 as build rate steps up.

Coal generation is almost half (-48%) the level that it was five years ago. Coal supplied 13% of Europe’s electricity in 2020, down from 25% in 2015. Almost half of Europe’s coal plants operational in 2010 have either closed or are due to close. However, 37% of Europe’s electricity was still from fossil fuels in 2020. Although gas generation fell slightly in 2020, it is still a large part of the mix. Suppressed electricity demand may have enabled the extent of coal’s fall – electricity demand has been mostly flat throughout the last decade. 

What happened in 2020?

Coal fell 20% due to increasing wind and solar and a collapse in electricity demand. In 2020, electricity demand fell by 4% due to the pandemic. Although some countries fell by over 20% at the height of lockdown, by the end of the year electricity demand had broadly recovered to pre-Covid levels. The demand fall was largely offset by the biggest fall in nuclear output in the EU this century, bigger than even the year of Fukushima. In part this was due to permanent plant closures in France, Sweden and Germany, as well as  Covid-related problems in France.

Wind and solar increased by a healthy but unremarkable 14%. Hydro generation also rose on good precipitation; bioenergy was unchanged. All of this culminated in a large fall of 20% in coal generation and a much smaller fall of 5% in gas generation.  

EU-27’s transition in comparison with G20 countries

EU leads the G20 on wind and solar

The EU is leading the world in building up wind and solar, with twice the world average.  As the world reaches almost a tenth of its electricity from wind and solar, the EU is almost at 20%. Germany is head and shoulders above the rest of the G20 with 33%. Current targets in the EU mean tripling the rate of wind and solar growth in the 2020’s, which means that the EU is likely to keep its top spot even as countries step up in the coming years.

Wind and solar, but also gas, is replacing coal in the EU

Since 2015, the market share of wind and solar has risen by 7 percentage points from 13% to 20% of electricity supply. That has led to a collapse in coal by 11 percentage points, as gas generation also contributed to some of the fall in coal. Wind and solar taking market share from coal is happening across the G20, but in most cases it’s not leading to an increase in market share of gas.

EU renewables beats fossil, but still has a way to 100% clean electricity

Total renewables generation (38%) surpassed fossil generation (37%) for the first time in 2020. 

Only Brazil and Canada have a lower proportion of electricity from fossil generation in the G20. Successful coal phase-out measures in the EU mean that coal generates one of the smallest shares of electricity (12%). But 37% of the EU’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels in total. The US is much higher, at 60%, but Biden’s administration is pushing to commit to 100% clean electricity by 2035.

EU’s electricity demand is lower than a decade ago

EU electricity demand was 4% lower in 2020 than in 2010. The US, Canada and Australia all saw falls, whilst other parts of the world, especially in Asia, rose substantially. The EU’s demand per capita at 6.2 MWh is still above China’s (5.3 MWh), although China’s has been rising at a very fast rate, now overtaking Italy and the UK.

The EU halved coal generation in the last 5 years

In 2020, coal fell by 20% in the EU. This was driven by growth in wind and solar alongside falling electricity demand due to the pandemic – a pattern mirrored elsewhere. But looking back to 2015, coal generation in the EU has fallen a lot more than other countries. The EU’s coal generation was 48% lower in 2020 than in 2015, exceeding even the US’s 43% fall.

Concluding remarks

The EU’s electricity transition is world-leading. A substantial pick-up in wind and solar electricity has helped, in part, to collapse coal generation in half. Europe’s innovations in building and integrating huge amounts of intermittent renewable electricity into the electricity grid can give lessons and confidence to other countries on how to transition more rapidly to clean electricity.

But the journey has just begun. Wind and solar are a fifth of electricity supplied in Europe, but this will need to approximately triple in the next decade.

That level of growth is needed to meet new electricity demand and help complete the phase-out of coal. However, even if the EU hits renewables targets, gas generation is unlikely to shrink much as long as the EUstill lacks a phase-out plan.

Go back:

Key findings

Trends 2015-2020

Trends in 2020

Comparison with G20

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Cover of Ember's report: India, Peaking Coal?

This report showcases a global dataset for electricity generation & demand across 217 countries from 2000 to 2020. Data for 2020 covers 90% of the world’s electricity production.

Each year, we aim to be the earliest authoritative report to give insights into last year’s global electricity generation changes – offering an unbiased picture of the transition to fossil-free electricity.

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