30th Mar 2023

Study: EU electricity transition sped into high gear in 2022

  • The deployment of solar energy was fastest in the Netherlands (Photo: Stephen Rees)
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Europe accelerated its electricity transition in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, according to a new study by Ember, a German energy think tank, in a report published on Tuesday (31 January).

Wind and solar generated 22 percent of total electricity supply, for the first time surpassing fossil gas (20 percent) and remaining above coal power (16 percent).

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Gas an coal power did not drop, however, as hydropower production fell to its lowest level in 22 years due to once in 500-years drought.

French nuclear woes and the German nuclear phase-out led to a further 185 terawatt-hour gap in a generation, equal to seven percent of Europe's total electricity demand in 2022.

85 percent of this was made up for by more wind and solar generation, but the rest had to be replaced by gas and coal. Since coal was cheaper in 2022, consumption rose seven percent, increasing overall EU power sector emissions by 3.9 percent.

But a feared-for winter coal surge did not materialise, and coal burning dropped over the last four months of the year due to a 7.9 percent decrease in electricity demand from households and industries when compared to a year before — close to the 10.2-percent drop witnessed during the Covid-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020.

"Any fears of a coal rebound are now dead," Dave Jones, head of data insights at Ember, said in a statement.

Fossil electricity generation is predicted to drop by 20 percent in 2023, with hydropower almost back at normal levels, the French nuclear fleet coming back online, and rapid deployment of wind and solar expected to pick up the pace further.

"The only brake on the transition will be the fall in nuclear as Germany completes its phase-out," the report states.

Dutch solar leads

At the heart of the transition was the increase in solar capacity, which rose by a record 39 TWh (plus 24 percent) in 2022, helping to avoid €10bn in gas costs.

It was the largest-ever absolute increase in solar electricity generation, outpacing the previous year by 47 percent.

The Netherlands increased its share of solar power the most of any EU country, adding 1.8 gigawatts (38 percent) in a single year.

With 14 percent of electricity demand met by solar, the country rose to the top of the pack, one percentage point ahead of Hungary and Greece.

Overall 7.3 percent of electricity generation was produced by solar panels.

The report notes it is "evident" the energy crisis of 2022 has sped up the move to clean electricity.

Heat pump sales doubled in Poland, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands during the first half of 2022, electric vehicle sales are rising, and hydrogen electrolysers saw a step change in 2022.

Modelling by Ember shows Europe can achieve a clean power system by 2035 but also warns a rapid uptake of renewables could increase electricity consumption.

"One thing is certain: the current lull in electricity demand must not be an excuse to slow down the roll-out of clean energy," the report concludes.

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