Wind and solar sources generated more electricity than coal across Europe in 2019, with coal-fired generation plunging 24% across the European Union, helping to drive a 12% reduction in the power sector’s CO2 emissions – the biggest decline in emissions seen since 1990.
London-based non-profit Sandbag in partnership with German think-tank Agora Energiewende published their sixth annual report analysing the European Union’s power sector for the previous year.
The report, The European Power Sector in 2019, revealed that, for the first time, wind and solar electricity generation outperformed the coal sector – with wind and solar generating 569TWh of electricity, or 18% of the EU’s total, while coal fell to only 469TWh, or 15%.
Coal’s defeat at the hand of wind and solar was part of a larger, industry-wide collapse of coal-fired electricity generation, which fell 24% across the European Union and is now sitting at levels less than half of that seen in 2007.
The report concludes that many countries in western Europe saw significantly larger year-on-year falls in coal-fired electricity generation, however eastern Europe remains lagging behind, still more reliant upon coal than their westerly neighbours.
Importantly, half of the coal retirements were replaced with wind and solar, while the other half was replaced by natural gas. Naturally, then, countries with the largest increase in wind and solar capacity saw the largest falls in coal generation.
This has helped coal’s share of the European Union electricity mix over 2010 to 2019 to fall by 10%, while wind and solar rose a combined 13% over the same decade.
Further, the mammoth decline in coal generation led to a 12% drop in the EU’s power sector CO2 emissions – the largest decline seen since at least 1990 – while two more European countries, Greece and Hungary, committed to phasing out coal by 2028 and 2030 respectively, bringing the total number of EU countries committed to coal phase-out by 2030 up to 20 out of 2028.
Sandbag and Agora Energiewende also expect Europe’s transition from coal to clean energy to accelerate. Wind capacity across the EU is expected to have increased by 14 GW in 2019 – the second-highest amount on record – while solar across the EU increased by 17 GW – doubling 2018’s figures.
The report also points to record-low auction prices for offshore wind in the United Kingdom and solar in Portugal as signs that the rate of new wind and solar installations will accelerate this decade.
“Europe is leading the world on rapidly replacing coal generation with wind and solar, and as a result, power sector CO2 emissions have never fallen so quickly,” said Dave Jones, Electricity Analyst with Sandbag. “30% of all global fossil emissions still come from coal generation – so it’s critical that there is an urgent focus to transition away from coal in all countries.
“Europe has become a test-bed for replacing coal with wind & solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal too.”
This would appear to be supported by recently-released offshore wind figures for Europe, with a record 3.6 GW of new offshore wind capacity additions seen throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, the UK led the way with nearly half of new capacity at 1.7 GW, followed by Germany with 1.1 GW.
However, there are warning signs that Europe is not building enough offshore wind capacity quickly enough to deliver on climate targets and ambitions.
“Europe really embraced offshore wind in 2019,” said Giles Dickson, CEO of European wind energy trade body WindEurope. “Auction prices showed it’s now cheaper to build offshore wind than new gas or coal plants. Several Governments raised the amount they want to build.
This time last year we were looking at 76 GW by 2030. Now it’s 100 GW.”
“But we’re not currently building enough to deliver on that, let alone the more ambitious volumes needed to deliver the Green Deal. The EU Commission says we need up to 450 GW of offshore by 2050.
That means 7 GW new offshore wind every year by 2030 and 18 GW by 2050. Last year we built a record amount, but only 3 GW.”