May 13

Image: Thomas Richter via Unsplash

Renewable power generation overtook fossil fuels for the first time ever last year in the European Union.

The shifts marks a significant milestone, yet at the same time highlights the massive hurdles facing climate change ambitions – which face a reality check on timelines.

According to a report by Ember and Agora Energiewende, European power recorded its greenest year ever in 2020. Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass supplied 38% of EU electricity, while fossil fuels such as coal and gas contributed 37%.

The rapid growth in renewables delivered the change, as use of wind and solar energy has almost doubled during the last five years. In contrast, coal-fired power generation fell 20% last year and has halved since 2015.

“It is significant that Europe has reached this landmark moment at the start of a decade of global climate action,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s senior electricity analyst and the lead author of the report.

Last year, about one-fifth of the EU’s total electricity came from wind and solar power plants, with Denmark leading the way among member states in terms of use.

According to the report, curbs on businesses triggered by stay-home policies amid Covid-19 led to a 4% drop in overall electricity demand across the EU. Fossil fuel producers were hit the hardest.

And coal is fading as a future source of power generation. Siemens Energy recently announced that it would cut 7,800 jobs or 8.5% of its entire workforce to counter a drop in demand for new coal-fired energy stations. Last year, the company announced that it would no longer bid in tenders to supply turbines to coal-fired power plants.

The move was interpreted as a response to a weakening market as the EU nations and other governments around the world are phasing out fossil fuels and other polluting energy sources.

Meanwhile, renewable energy generation capacity is set to grow. WindEurope’s figure exceeds 100 gigawatts and projects that wind energy’s installed capacity will double by 2030.

While the renewables milestone is certainly incredible, it tells a less optimistic story regarding EU aims for carbon neutrality by 2050.

The issue is scale. Going green means going electric first. Europe will need significant additional power generation – with deeper electric car penetration, for example. That moves the goalposts for the fight between renewables and fossil fuels to a bigger field. And renewables have only just edged ahead.

The green ambition is clear. And politically, renewables are a winner. Yet trying to scale up overall capacity, while scaling down coal, can only mean natural gas is going to be central to generation for a long time.

Keep in mind that Germany has been shuttering nuclear power plants since the Fukushima disaster.

For the EU to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5°C, there needs to be a 50% increase of renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2040, according to Climate Action Network.

That is a tall order – but maybe, it can happen. Last year may have been the ‘greenest ever,’ but the EU still has a long way to go. While it has made significant progress in pushing ahead with renewable energy, it should tread carefully when it comes to bans or regulations on traditional fuels. Energy is a basic necessity, and any transition to cleaner models needs to ensure that the energy supply continues uninterrupted to those who depend on it.

That may take a little longer to get done. But it’s looking promising so far.

By Dimitri Frolowsckii

Dimitri Frolowsckii is a political analyst and consultant.

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