coal power plant

Europe avoided coal power surge in 2022 despite issues over Russian oil imports

Europe largely avoided a major return to coal power in the wake of the 2022 energy crisis, a report has found.

With the move away from Russia-supplied fossil fuels, concerns were raised that Europe would be forced to rely heavily on coal power to get it through the winter.

Think-tank Ember has found that coal power share increased by only 1.5 percentage points to generate 16 per cent of EU electricity in 2022, with year-on-year falls in the last four months of 2022.

Despite the UK’s plans to shut down all coal plants by 2024, it was forced to fire up two coal generators in December in preparation for possible disruptions to the country’s electricity supply caused by the freezing weather conditions.

Ember's report also showed that wind and solar generated a record fifth (22 per cent) of EU electricity in 2022, overtaking fossil gas (20 per cent) for the first time.

Dave Jones, Ember’s head of data insights, said: “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.”

The analysis shows that Europe faced a “triple crisis” in the electricity sector in 2022. Just as the continent scrambled to cut ties with its biggest gas supplier, Russia, it also faced the lowest levels of hydro and nuclear in at least two decades, which created a deficit equal to 7 per cent of Europe’s total electricity demand in 2022.

However, record growth in wind and solar helped cushion the hydro and nuclear deficit. Solar generation rose the fastest, growing by a record 39TWh (a 24 per cent increase) in 2022 - almost twice its previous record - which helped to avoid €10bn in gas costs. Twenty EU countries set new solar records in 2022.

Lower electricity demand also helped reduce the deficit. EU electricity demand dropped by 7.9 per cent in the last quarter of 2022 compared to the same period the previous year.

Mild weather was a deciding factor, but affordability pressures also played a role, alongside energy efficiency improvements and citizens acting in solidarity to cut energy demand in a time of crisis.

Just one-sixth of the nuclear and hydro deficit was met by coal. Coal generation rose by 7 per cent, leading to an increase in total EU power sector emissions by 3.9 per cent in 2022 compared to 2021.

The latest indications from industry suggest that, in 2023, Europe’s transition to wind and solar will accelerate in response to the energy crisis and hydro and French nuclear will recover.

Ember estimates that this could cause a 20 per cent drop in fossil fuel generation over the course of the coming year – double the previous record from 2020. Coal generation will fall, but gas generation - which is expected to remain more expensive than coal until at least 2025 - will fall the fastest.

“We are seeing a remarkable acceleration in the pace with which renewable energy is being built. Especially for offshore wind and rooftop solar, the numbers are impressive,” said Frans Timmermans, an executive vice president at the European Commission.

“It’s clear that European citizens want to benefit from cheap, clean energy. It shows that our target of 45 per cent renewables by 2030 is ambitious but entirely feasible. Europeans know that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

“Renewables are crucial to tackle the climate crisis and cut air pollution. They are also crucial to end our dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The ongoing energy crisis will still bring another difficult winter, but the more renewables we have, the more sovereign we are in our energy supply.”

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