Jan 25, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Europe's electricity inflection point

Reproduced from an Ember and Agora Energiewende report; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from an Ember and Agora Energiewende report; Chart: Axios Visuals

Renewable sources overtook fossil fuels as the largest source of power generation in the European Union for the first time last year, new analysis Monday shows.

Why it matters: It's an inflection point. Wind — now the largest source of renewables in the bloc — and solar have been growing while coal-fired production has fallen sharply in recent years.

  • The chart above shows both absolute shares of renewables and fossil fuels, and coal vs. wind and solar together.
  • The report is from the clean energy think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende.

The intrigue: Some of the 2020 data shows the effects of the pandemic, with coal's most recent decline influenced partly by decreased overall power demand along with continued displacement by renewables.

  • But overall, COVID-19's "impact on the overall trend from fossil fuels to renewables was quite limited," the report finds.
  • Wind and solar capacity additions were "surprisingly robust" despite the pandemic.

Yes, but: The changing generation mix in the continents' power sector isn't happening fast enough to be consistent with the EU's wider climate goals, the groups say.

"The transition from coal to clean is...still too slow for reaching 55% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050," the report states.

What we're watching: Ember analyst Dave Jones, asked whether renewables will beat fossil fuels again this year, said, "it will probably be close." But the overall trajectory is clear.

  • "As demand picks up again post-COVID, it's possible there is a very small rebound in fossil generation," he said, adding it would be "slight and temporary."
  • "The trend is clear: Wind and solar are helping to quickly phase out coal. Hopefully, it will start to do the same for gas generation."
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