Analysis by energy think tank Ember reveals that Europe’s fossil-fired electricity has returned to pre-Covid levels, driven by an increase in gas generation, despite resilient growth in wind and solar power.
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Polluting fuels are bouncing back
Low electricity demand during Covid lockdowns 12 months ago resulted in record lows in fossil fuel generation. However this April’s data shows that polluting fuels have already bounced back higher than 2019 levels, with gas making a stronger recovery than coal. Fossil gas was up 15% in April 2021 compared to 2019 levels, while coal remained 12% lower. Wind and solar deployment must accelerate to ensure fossil fuel declines become permanent.
The impact of Covid-19
How did Covid affect EU electricity generation?
Last March, Covid infections reached a critical level in Europe, and by April lockdowns were in place across the continent. Electricity demand in the EU-27 hit a low of 182TWh, 12% lower than April in 2019.
Variable renewables, which generate according to the weather rather than being dispatched at will, continued to generate as normal. Wind remained at 2019 levels while solar generated an additional +3TWh compared to April 2019. This meant that wind and solar together could supply a larger share of Europe’s power than in the same month in 2019, up 4 points from 19% to 23% of total production.
Outages at French nuclear plants, exacerbated by strikes and outbreaks of Covid among power plant staff, limited the generation in Europe’s largest nuclear country. With two nuclear units already closed in Germany and Sweden in December 2019, and one in France closed in February 2020, the final effect was a 9TWh, or 15%, fall in nuclear output compared to April 2019.
This helped to limit the impact of the pandemic on fossil fueled generation, but production still fell to a low of 52TWh in April 2020—a full 21TWh less than the same month in 2019. Fossil generation fell seven points from making up 35% of production in April 2019 to only 28% in April 2020. Two thirds of this fall came from coal power plants, with the final third from gas. Over the following few months 11 EU countries recorded significant low points in the share of generation provided by fossil fuels, as did Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Not yet building back better
Normal levels of demand returned in autumn, and although late 2020 and early 2021 saw some second lockdowns, the impact on electricity demand was not as severe and largely balanced out by rebounding demand in other parts of Europe. Last month’s demand was slightly higher than the same period in 2019, due to relaxation of restrictions and colder weather.
Renewables have continued to grow, with Q1 wind and solar output 3% higher in 2021 than 2019, although lower than Q1 last year due to the record wind output caused by 2020’s winter storms. Compared to April 2020, April 2021 saw an additional 3TWh of wind generation. Hydro has also had an unusually strong first quarter, with January and February seeing higher generation by 5.5TWh on average than in pre-Covid 2020.
After making a small recovery in the final quarter of 2020, nuclear output was hit by two more units closing in December, one in Sweden and one in France. Combined with ongoing outages at French plants, generation in 2021 was once again lower than in 2019, by an average of 7% over Q1. April saw this trend continue, with generation lower year-on-year by 6TWh.
Due in part to low nuclear generation, fossil fuels have bounced back to pre-Covid levels, even despite climbing carbon prices and growth in wind and solar. Fossil fuels actually generated more in December 2020 than in December 2019, and since then output has been almost identical to pre-pandemic levels.
While gas has been strongly impacted by occasional high hydro output, otherwise it has had a strong recovery, returning to pre-Covid levels as early as June 2020 and generating 5.5 TWh more electricity last month than in April 2019, a 15% increase. In contrast, coal power produced 18.5% less in Q1 2021 than 2019, and 12.5% (-4 TWh) less in April 2021 than in April 2019. While fossil power generation as a whole has recovered to 2019 levels, this was driven by gas’s strong recovery. Coal’s structural decline continues.
A glimpse of Europe's clean power future.
Covid lockdowns showed that the electricity system could run with much higher shares of wind and solar—and a smaller role for fossil fuels. Wind and solar deployment must now accelerate to meet climate targets and ensure fossil fuel declines become permanent.