• European Union generates more electricity from wind, solar and biomass combined than from coal in 2017

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      Philip Sharman

      IFRF Director

According to two European ‘thinktanks’, the EU’s 28 member states (EU-28) generated more electricity from the renewable sources of wind, solar and biomass than from coal for the first time last year.  This is quite a change from as recently as five years ago, when coal-fired generation was more than twice that from wind, solar and biomass combined.  This headline comes from a report produced by London-based Sandbag and Berlin-based Agora Energiewende, ‘The European Power Sector in 2017: The Tipping Point’ published on 30th January. 

Wind, solar and biomass together now supply over one-fifth (20.9%) of the electricity generated in the EU – up from less than 10% in 2010 – more than that from coal (20.6%) and from gas (19.7%).  This huge growth in generation from these three ‘new’ renewable energy sources (i.e. excluding hydropower) since 2010 is mainly attributable to the increase in wind power (57% of the growth), with smaller contributions from solar (25%) and biomass (18%).

Electricity generation from biomass increased by just 5TWh (3%) in 2017 compared to 2016.  This led to Sandbag and Agora Energiewende stating that “The biomass boom is over in Europe”.  The report adds: “Given concerns over biomass sourcing… the slowdown is, perhaps, a relief.  Co-firing in coal power plants is no longer rising and the pipeline for planned conversion of coal power plants to run on biomass is quite small.

This milestone is, of course, also due in part to falling coal-fired generation output – down almost 25% since 2012.  This decline has been due to a shift from coal to gas (particularly so from 2015 to 2016), but also more stringent emissions regulations, ageing coal-fired plant and stagnant electricity demand, as well, of course, from the competition from renewables.  This trend is set to continue and accelerate, with a number of EU countries announcing the phasing-out of coal-fired generation (i.e. the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain), with others debating following suite.

Interestingly, nuclear power remains the single largest source of electricity in the EU-28, responsible for 25.6% of electricity generated in 2017.  This proportion has been decreasing very slightly as old reactors are closed down or reactors temporarily go off-line for safety checks, etc.

In spite of this new milestone for new renewables, EU power sector emissions of carbon dioxide remained unchanged in 2017 (at 1,019mtCO2).  The reduction of CO2 emissions that could have been expected from the continuing decline of coal-fired generation versus the continued increase in new renewables in the ‘generation mix’, did not happen for a number of reasons: There was an increase in electricity demand (up 0.7% from 2016); an increase in gas use in power generation (up 7%); a decrease in hydropower generation (down 16%); and a decrease in nuclear power generation (down 1%).  Things are never as straightforward as they might appear…

For some further commentary on this interesting report, plus some informative graphs and maps based on the Sandbag and Agora Energiewende data, take a look at a piece by CarbonBrief.