Is a question I thought worthy of asking as I am constantly hearing people asking each other on the pros and cons for the ever increasing numbers of electric vehicles, (EV’s), on our streets and motorways. Invariably the argument always comes down to how much cleaner is the EV in real terms? With regular statements such as, “the electricity generated at the power stations produce more pollutants than today’s modern combustion engines”. So how clean is the electricity generated today?
Where to start
The full-year, (2021 being the latest year reported on), European Electricity Review analyses shows data in all EU-27 countries, (obviously no UK data), in order to understand the region’s progress in transitioning from fossil fuels to clean electricity. I think most of us understand the 2035 target of net zero emissions.
The emissions intensity of EU electricity generation the amount ofGreenhouse gas emissions, (GHG), emitted per unit of electricity) declined from 253gCO2eq/kWh in 2019 to 241gCO2eq/kWh in 2021. There remains a huge gulf between the cleanest and dirtiest electricity grids across the EU but yes it is getting cleaner! The report compares data from 2021 to both 2020 and 2019. The comparison to 2019 is the more accurate measure of overall progress in the transition from dirty to clean electricity as it avoids the fcuked up period better known as the Covid 19 pandemic.
The Generation Game
In the last two reported years Europe’s renewable electricity continued to expand with average annual growth of 44 Terawatt hours, (TWh). 52% of this new renewable generation since 2019 replaced gas power, a third replaced nuclear, while only a sixth replaced coal. Between 2011 and 2019 over 80% of new renewables replaced coal. Over the last two reported years coal generation only declined in countries that closed coal power stations such as Spain (-42%) and Greece (-43%). This was mostly offset by increases in Poland (+7%). Increased nuclear outages also reduced the extent to which coal generation fell. In short this is all about money, the energy crisis and the cost of gas resulted in a shift in what was most economically required to be replaced, coal is dirty but cheap and so renewables started replacing the costly gas and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Between 2019 -2021 EU power sector emissions declined at less than half the rate required for 1.5C, (climate target), suggesting the clean-up is not happening fast enough. Since 2019 coal declined just 3% compared to 29% in the two years prior. Fossil fuels accounted for 39% of EU electricity production in 2019. In 2021 it reduced to 37%. Spain delivered the largest reductions, retiring 6.5GW of coal capacity, whilst Czechia, Greece, Italy, Romania and Portugal all retired about 1-2GW each making Portugal the fourth country to become completely coal free. Renewables generated 37% and nuclear 26%.
Although nuclear is a proven source of low-carbon, dispatchable electricity giving a high degree of energy security and provides 40% of the EU’s carbon-free electricity, the sector today faces major challenges. In 2021 nuclear power stations in the EU generated 733 TWh of electricity. This was 7% (+47 TWh) more than 2020 as French and Belgian power plant availability improved. However, nuclear output remained 4% lower (-32 TWh) than in 2019, caused by the planned closure of nuclear reactors. Nuclear accounted for 26% of EU electricity production in 2021, down from 29% a decade ago. Some member states are strongly anti-nuclear, and electricity markets are often structured in response to populist support for renewables. In the period to 2030, nuclear capacity that will be lost due to the closure of a number of reactors, either because they have reached the end of their operating lifetimes or due to political interference and resistance to funding, is expected to outweigh that gained from new reactors. A slight decrease from the current EU nuclear capacity is therefore expected in the near term.
The long-term, structural decline of nuclear power in the EU has slowed power sector decarbonisation and here again the growth in renewables output will be needed to replace lost nuclear output, slowing down the replacement of fossil fuels!
Wind and Solar
Although new wind and solar growth since 2019 has predominantly replaced fossil gas, the unescapable fact is that electricity generated from renewable sources in the EU in 2021 reached a new high of 1068 TWh, a 1% (+12 TWh) year on year growth, being a 9% (+88 TWh) increase on 2019 accounting for 37% of EU electricity production. Wind and solar output alone reached another new record in 2021 (547 TWh), for the first time generating more electricity than fossil gas (524 TWh). Wind and solar generated 19% of EU electricity in 2021, up from 17% in 2019. The modest year-on-year wind and solar output growth of 1% was due to lower wind speeds across the EU, most notably in Germany. With 2020 being a windy year amplifying the difference in 2021. EU wind power output saw a small fall year-on-year -2% or -10 TWh, the equivalent to just 0.3% of total EU electricity production. A 10% (+14 TWh) increase in solar output, which is on fire across Europe, more than offset the decline in wind. Variations in this sector are to be expected but with new technologies and better long-term storage solutions future energy security and growth in wind and solar will be ensured. Installed wind and solar capacity across the EU continued to grow in 2021. Wind and solar capacity grew an estimated 8% (+15 GW) and 16% (+22GW) respectively.
Where solar power is successful is due to policy, not just sunshine
Be it a country with higher irradiance, Spain and Cyprus, or lower irradiance, Netherlands and Germany, all of which are now generating around a tenth of their national power demand from solar. Sustained Government policy can create a market for solar anywhere in Europe.
Spain’s solar story is the shinning example for other countries in Europe to follow having almost doubled solar generation since 2019 from 15 TWh to 26 TWh. Spain has the sunshine, the policy framework and the right Minister for the Ecological Transition, in Madrid born Teresa Ribera, who has received high praise for enabling coal areas to directly transition to a growing solar industry that is set to provide nearly 30% of Spain’s electricity generation by 2030 (up from 10% currently). Following its neighbour’s impressive increase, Portugal is now beginning to catch up with Spain and making the most of a similar latitude, with almost 4% of demand met by solar.
Further North, Europe’s growth in solar generation has been driven by the Netherlands (+6 TWh / +115% since 2019). Almost 10% of the country’s power demand was met by solar in 2021 and it has ambitious plans for further growth this decade, despite being a higher latitude country. Taken together, Spain and the Netherlands account for half of Europe’s solar growth since 2019.
From a low base, Poland has seen impressive growth in solar, more than doubling since 2019 (from 1 TWh to 4 TWh). Indeed, Polish wind and solar combined (20 TWh) have now overtaken gas generation (16 TWh). However, recent changes in government support for residential solar means growth may slow. Hungary (+67% / +1 TWh) has also seen growth and now meets over 5% of its demand with solar.
Beginning in earnest in the second half of 2021 the electricity price crisis fuelled, (pardon the pun) by the accelerated cost of fossil gas saw wind and solar step up to the plate. EU wind and solar power generated was the highest on record for each month in the second half of 2021, except September.
The EU has three new engines of wind and solar power growth
After three years of slow to minimal growth (2016 -2018), three European countries have seen the light and have blown everyone’s mind. In each of these countries wind and solar power has seen their market share grow by around 10% in just three years! In 2021 wind and solar provided a third of Spain’s electricity and at least a quarter in the Netherlands and Greece. Together these countries have been responsible for over half of all growth in wind and solar output in the EU since 2019, despite accounting for just 16% of electricity demand.
Both Spain and the Netherlands plan to provide two thirds of their electricity from wind and solar by 2030 with Greece targeting 50%. We just need more to get onboard faster and some need to get started. There is little doubt that wind and solar is becoming the backbone of Europe’s future electricity system.
Only modest changes for the other renewable sources
After seeing very limited growth since 2015, bioenergy grew 4% (+7 TWh) between 2019 and 2021, almost entirely driven by new biomass co-firing in coal power stations in the Netherlands. Hydro output was normal in 2021 and broadly unchanged year-on-year, but it was 9% (+28 TWh) higher than 2019 which was a relatively dry year.
Note: bioenergy is treated as a renewable energy source in EU legislation, but recent scientific evidence shows that many forms of bioenergy risk significant carbon emissions.
Back to the fossil gas crisis
Wind and solar power were already cheaper than fossil gas for electricity generation before the gas crisis hit and they have become even more cost-competitive since, despite global commodity prices increasing their production costs. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently confirmed that ‘higher natural gas and coal prices have improved the competitiveness of wind and solar photovoltaics (PV), despite equipment price increases due to high commodity and energy prices’.
The time to start moving away from fossil gas is now
The gas crisis has provided a powerful reminder that as long as Europe remains reliant on imported fossil fuels it is exposed to volatile energy prices. The considered use of fossil gas as a transition fuel looks dead in the water and must surely be given up.
Many countries were relying on renewables to replace dirty coal while pushing their gas problem to the backs of their minds, but with the increase in the price of gas effectively putting coal back in the picture, Europe can no longer expect market forces to move this forward. There is now an imperative to phase out both fuels on economic as well as climate grounds. Renewables need to be scaled up at an ever increasing pace in order to replace both coal and gas.
The electricity in Europe is cleaner than it has ever been and getting cleaner. Much more needs to be and is being done. Then there is that car question and well yes it is a fact that the modern day internal combustion engine, (ICE), contributes disproportionately more GHG than the new EV kids on the block. By disproportionately I do mean a massive 450% more!
Hold your horsepower, yes I know the issues surrounding the manufacturing process and what is being done with spent lithium. Ion batteries? I will cover these issues in my next blog post.
Thanks for reading