Wind and solar overtake fossil gas to produce record fifth of EU electricity

  • Brussels

  • 31 January 2023

Europe ‘avoids the worst’ of the energy crisis as coal power falls this winter

Wind and solar generated a record fifth (22%) of EU electricity in 2022, for the first time overtaking fossil gas (20%), according to the European Electricity Review published today by energy think tank Ember. Coal power share increased by just 1.5 percentage points to generate 16% of EU electricity in 2022, with year-on-year falls in the last four months of 2022 as Europe prevented a threatened return to coal power in the wake of the 2022 energy crisis. 

Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” said Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones. “The shocks of 2022 only caused a minor ripple in coal power and a huge wave of support for renewables. Any fears of a coal rebound are now dead.

Europe weathered the triple crisis

The analysis by Ember reveals that Europe faced a triple crisis in the electricity sector in 2022. Just as Europe scrambled to cut ties with its biggest supplier of fossil gas, it faced the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear in at least two decades, which created a deficit equal to 7% of Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022. 

Record growth in wind and solar helped cushion the hydro and nuclear deficit. Solar generation rose the fastest, growing by a record 39 TWh (+24%) in 2022—almost twice its previous record—which helped to avoid €10 billion in gas costs. Twenty EU countries set new solar records in 2022.

Lower electricity demand also helped reduce the deficit. EU electricity demand dropped by 7.9% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year (-56 TWh), close in scale to the 9.6% fall (-61 TWh) witnessed in Q2 2020 when lockdowns were first imposed across much of Europe. Mild weather was a deciding factor, but affordability pressures likely played a role, alongside energy efficiency improvements and citizens acting in solidarity to cut energy demand in a time of crisis.

Just one sixth of the nuclear and hydro deficit was met by coal. Coal generation rose by 7% (+28 TWh). As a result, EU power sector emissions rose by 3.9% (+26 MtCO2) in 2022 compared to 2021. It could have been much worse: wind, solar and a fall in electricity demand prevented a much larger return to coal. In context, coal’s rise was not substantial: coal power remained below 2018 levels and added only 0.3% to global coal generation.

Coal power in the EU fell in all four of the final months of 2022, down 6% year-on-year. The 26 coal units placed on emergency standby for winter ran at an average of just 18% capacity. Despite importing 22 million tonnes of extra coal throughout 2022, the EU only used a third of it. Countries are as committed to phasing out coal as they were before the crisis.

Perhaps most surprisingly, gas generation was almost unchanged (+0.8%) in 2022 compared to 2021, despite record-high prices. Fossil gas generated 20% of EU electricity in 2022, up from 19% the previous year. However, this trend is expected to change drastically in the coming year. 

Gas generation set for a record fall in 2023

The latest indications from industry suggest that in 2023, Europe’s transition to wind and solar will accelerate in response to the energy crisis and hydro and French nuclear will recover. As a result, Ember estimates that fossil generation could plummet by 20% in 2023, double the previous record from 2020. Coal generation will fall, but gas generation, which is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025, will fall the fastest. 

Europe's clean power transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever. Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well. The energy crisis has undoubtedly sped up Europe’s electricity transition. Europe is hurtling towards a clean, electrified economy, and this will be on full display in 2023. Change is coming fast, and everyone needs to be ready for it.

Dave Jones Ember’s head of data insights

We are seeing a remarkable acceleration in the pace with which renewable energy is being built. Especially for offshore wind and rooftop solar the numbers are impressive. It’s clear that European citizens want to benefit from cheap, clean energy. It shows that our target of 45% renewables by 2030 is ambitious but entirely feasible. Europeans know that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Renewables are crucial to tackle the climate crisis and cut air pollution. They are also crucial to end our dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The ongoing energy crisis will still bring another difficult winter, but the more renewables we have, the more sovereign we are in our energy supply.

Frans Timmermans Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal, European Commission

Solar is stepping up right when Europe needs it most. These new numbers show that rapid solar growth is truly the foundation of the energy transition. In 2023, with the right support, solar will break more records, reduce fossil energy demand further, and take us one year closer to a 100% renewable Europe.

Walburga Hemetsberger CEO of SolarPower Europe

Wind and solar generated more electricity than gas in 2022. And Europe built 15 GW of new wind. That’s not too bad given the challenges the wind industry faced last year. But much more is needed to meet Europe’s renewables targets. REPowerEU has started to simplify the long and complex permitting procedures – good. But the EU must also ramp up its clean energy industrial policy - and get its market design right so that Europe becomes an attractive place for renewables investments again. The Net Zero Industries Act needs to strengthen the wind energy supply chain and support investments in turbine and component manufacturing, ports, grids and vessels.

Giles Dickson CEO of WindEurope

This report shows Europe can afford a sigh of relief: the much-touted coal revival has turned out to be a non-event with solar power and a stellar EU wide savings effort playing a central role in keeping the lights on. An unusually warm winter however played its part too and energy ministers will now need to use the forthcoming spring and summer to further improve its energy security and support the continued large-scale role out of renewables and saving measures. Agreeing to setting the EU’s RePowerEU targets for 2030 at 45% RES and 13% EE as a minimum will be a crucial first step in that direction.

Pieter de Pous Programme Leader in E3G's Fossil Fuel Transition Programme

European Electricity Review 2023 proves that demand reduction, coupled with significantly more wind and solar generation can replace fossil fuels in the electricity sector. It should not take a fossil gas crisis to hit in order to grasp this and move accordingly. European co-legislators, currently negotiating on the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Directives, must ride this wave and agree on higher energy savings and sustainable renewables targets.

Elif Gündüzyeli Senior Energy Policy Expert at CAN Europe

Europe is going through what IEA executive director Fatih Birol describes as the biggest energy crisis in history. Yet EU coal power generation has only increased by a meagre seven percent, as record output of solar and wind powers us through the crisis. Despite this, countries like Bulgaria and Romania are trying to use the moment to construct a narrative that coal has a future. Given the depth of the crisis, and the small bounce for coal, it’s evidently clear that it hasn’t.

Alexandru Mustață Coal campaigner at Europe Beyond Coal