Despite Energy Crisis, Wind and Solar Broke EU Electricity Generation Records in 2022
2022 was a difficult year for the European Union energy-wise. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February reduced the supply and upped the price of gas, while a summer drought strained its hydroelectric resources.
Despite these challenges, it ended up being a promising year for renewable energy in the bloc, a new report from energy think tank Ember has revealed. For the first time, wind and solar generated more than a fifth of the EU’s electricity, more than any other single energy source including gas and coal.
“Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” Ember head of data insights Dave Jones said in the report. “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’s clean power transition emerges from this crisis stronger than ever.”
The findings come from the European Electricity Review 2023, Ember’s seventh annual report on power generation in the EU. 2022 was a pivotal year for the bloc’s energy transition because it saw the “triple crisis” of reduced Russian gas, a one-in-500 year drought and nuclear outages in France, according to the report and Carbon Brief.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU got a third of its gas from the country. In the aftermath, Russia reduced supplies and the EU sanctioned coal and oil imports from the country. This led to concerns that energy security would override climate action as a priority for European leaders. Indeed, 26 11-gigawatt (GW) coal plants were returned to emergency standby, and the EU imported 22 million more tonnes of coal than in 2021, according to Energy Monitor. At the same time, there was actually not much switching between coal and gas in 2022 because that had already occurred in 2021 when gas prices started to rise.
“There was no further gas-to-coal switching possible in 2022,” Jones told Carbon Brief.
In addition to gas supply issues, however, a historic drought saw hydropower fall to its lowest levels since at least 2000 while French nuclear plants suffered an outage right when German plants had been set to retire, the report noted. Because of this, the bloc saw a 185 terawatt-hour (TWh) gap in electricity generation, which was as much as seven percent of the EU’s demand for the year.
In this instance, wind and solar came through, making up five-sixths of that gap. Fossil fuels filled in the last sixth, and overall fossil generation did rise by three percent compared to 2021. As part of this, coal use did rise by seven percent compared to 2021–and power sector emissions rose by 3.9 percent–its rise was much smaller than feared.
“It could have been much worse: wind, solar and a fall in electricity demand prevented a much larger return to coal,” Ember wrote.
Together, wind and solar made up a total of 22.3 percent of the EU’s electricity mix, more than nuclear at 21.9 percent and gas at 19.9 percent, Carbon Brief reported. This was the first year that wind and solar had generated more than nuclear and gas, while they had already passed coal in 2019 and hydro in 2015. That said, nuclear and hydro together still generated more electricity than wind and solar in 2022, according to Ember.
Of the new carbon-free energy sources, solar had the biggest year, generating 39 more TWh than in 2021, an increase of more than 24 percent. This was made possible by a record 41 GW worth of new solar installations, up 47 percent from 2021– a worthy investment since it helped prevent an extra €10 billion in gas expenditures. Twenty EU countries also broke records for highest amount of electricity from solar to date.
“Solar is stepping up right when Europe needs it most,” SolarPower Europe CEO Walburga Hemetsberger told Euronews Green in response to the report. “These new numbers show that rapid solar growth is truly the foundation of the energy transition.”
Going forward, Ember predicts an even greener 2023, with wind and solar rising by around 20 percent, hydro and nuclear recovering and fossil power potentially falling by a record 20 percent. Coal generation already fell during the last four months of 2022 because of decreased demand, and two thirds of the EU’s extra imported coal were never used.
“Not only are European countries still committed to phasing out coal, they are now striving to phase out gas as well,” Jones said in the report. “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.”