Wind and solar were EU’s top electricity source in 2022 for first time ever

Wind and solar provided more of the EU’s electricity than any other power source for the first time ever in 2022, new analysis shows.

Together, they supplied a record fifth of the EU’s electricity by 2022 – a larger share than gas or nuclear power, according to a report by climate think tank Ember.

Record additions of new wind and solar in 2022 helped Europe survive a “triple crisis” created by restrictions on Russian gas supplies, a plunge in hydropower caused by drought and unexpected nuclear fallout, the analysis says.

Around 83% of the decline in hydro and nuclear power was covered by wind and solar – and falling demand for electricity. The rest was met by coal, which grew at a slower pace than some had expected amid a drop in fossil fuel supplies from Russia.

EU-wide solar power generation increased by a record 24% by 2022, helping to avoid 10 billion EUR in gas costs, according to the results. Around 20 EU countries sourced a record share of their electricity from solar energy, including the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.

Growth in wind and solar power is expected to continue this year, while hydro and nuclear generation are likely to recover. As a result, electricity generation from fossil fuels could fall by an unprecedented 20% by 2023 – double the previous record observed in 2020, the analysis estimates.

Record renewable energy

Wind and solar generated a record 22.3% of EU electricity by 2022, overtaking nuclear (21.9%) and gas (19.9%) for the first time, according to the analysis and shown in the chart below.

It comes after wind and solar overtook hydropower in 2015 and coal in 2019.

Shares of EU electricity production by source, 2000-22, %.  Source: Ember.  Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Shares of EU electricity production by source, 2000-22, %. Source: Ember. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The new landmark reflects both record growth in wind and solar power in Europe and an unexpected dip in nuclear power in 2022.

Last year, Europe faced a “triple crisis” for its energy supplies, the report said.

The first driver was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent shockwaves through the global energy system.

Before the attack, Europe got a third of its gas from Russia. But the outbreak of war prompted Russia to limit gas supplies to Europe and new EU sanctions against oil and coal imports from the country.

Despite the upheaval, EU gas production remained stable in 2022 compared to 2021.

That’s largely because gas was already more expensive than coal for most of 2021, said lead analysis author Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember. He tells Carbon Brief:

“There was no further gas-to-coal shift possible in 2022.”

The other major contributors to the crisis were declines in the supplies of both nuclear and hydropower, the report explains:

“A one-in-500-year drought across Europe led to the lowest level of hydropower generation since at least 2000, and there were widespread unexpected French nuclear outages just as German nuclear units shut down.”

This created a gap in generation equivalent to 7% of Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022, the report says.

Around 83% of this difference was covered by wind and solar energy – and a drop in demand for electricity. (Electricity demand fell 8% in the last quarter of 2022 compared to 2021 – driven by a combination of mild weather and public efforts to reduce energy use, according to Ember.)

Solar power generation increased by a record 24% in 2022, helping to avoid €10bn. in gas costs, according to Ember. This was due to record installations of 41 gigawatts (GW) in 2022 – almost 50% more than were added in 2021.

From May to August, solar power supplied 12% of the EU’s electricity – over 10% for the first summer on record.

EU countries set solar records in 2022. Credit: Ember
EU countries set solar records in 2022. Credit: Ember

Around 20 EU countries sourced a record share of their electricity from solar energy by 2022. The leader was the Netherlands, which produced 14% of its electricity from solar energy – overtaking coal for the first time.

Elsewhere, Greece ran exclusively on renewable energy for five hours in October 2022, according to Ember. The country is also expected to reach its 2030 solar capacity target of 8GW by the end of this year – seven years early.

No role for coal

As countries scramble to replace fossil fuels from Russia in early 2022, several EU countries signaled they were considering increasing their reliance on coal power.

However, the new report finds that coal played a minimal role in helping the EU tackle its energy crisis.

Just one-sixth of the decline in nuclear and hydro in 2022 was met by coal, according to the analysis.

And in the last four months of the year – when temperatures began to drop – coal production fell by 6% compared to the same period in 2021. This was primarily driven by falling electricity demand, the report said.

It adds that the 26 coal units that were brought back as an emergency were operating at just 18% capacity in the last four months of 2022. Nine of the 26 coal units provided no output at all.

Overall, coal production increased by 7% in 2022 compared to 2021, increasing EU electricity sector emissions by almost 4%. The report says:

“It could have been much worse: Wind, solar and a drop in demand for electricity prevented a much larger return to coal. In context, the coal increase was not significant: Coal power remained below 2018 levels and added just 0.3% to global coal generation.”

2023 outlook

Growth in wind and solar power is expected to continue this year, according to industry estimates, the report says.

At the same time, both hydro and nuclear power are expected to recover – with EDF predicting that many of its French nuclear plants will come back online by 2023.

As a result of these factors, fossil fuel electricity generation could fall by an unprecedented 20% by 2023 – double the previous record observed in 2020, the analysis predicts. The report says:

“Coal generation will decline, but gas generation, which is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025, will decline the fastest.”

The chart below shows how growth in wind and solar energy – as well as a continued decline in demand for electricity – could cause fossil fuel production to decline by 2023.

Change in the EU's electricity production 2021-2022 and a projection for 2022-2023.  Credit: Ember
Change in the EU’s electricity production 2021-2022 and a projection for 2022-2023. Credit: Ember

Jones adds that the findings show that the energy crisis “has undoubtedly accelerated Europe’s electricity transition”. He says:

“Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well. Europe is rushing towards a clean, electrified economy and this will be on full display in 2023. Change is coming fast and everyone must be ready for it.”

William

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