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Record fall in EU power sector emissions as wind and solar grow

7/2/2024

Wind turbines and solar panels alongside tulip fields in the Netherlands Photo: Adobe Stock
Renewables rose to a record 44% share of EU power in 2023, according to recent analysis by Ember

Photo: Adobe Stock

An unprecedented collapse in European Union (EU) coal and gas electricity generation in 2023 led to a record drop in power sector emissions, according to a new report from Ember.

The EU’s shift away from fossil fuels is evident with record drops in coal generation (–26%) as well as gas (–15%). According to the report, this led to the largest decline on record for EU power sector emissions (–19%), as wind and solar grew and electricity demand fell. Renewables continued to increase as wind power generation (18%) overtook gas (17%) for the first time in 2023.  

 

‘The EU’s power sector is in the middle of a monumental shift,’ comments Ember’s Europe Programme Director, Sarah Brown. ‘Fossil fuels are playing a smaller role than ever as a system with wind and solar as its backbone comes into view.’

 

Fossil generation plummeted by a record 19% in 2023, accounting for less than a third of EU power for the first time. Coal fell by 26% to its lowest ever level at 333 TWh, or 12% of the EU’s electricity generation. Coal’s decline did not result in a rise in gas, which instead fell by 15%, the largest annual reduction since at least 1990 and the fourth consecutive year of gas generation decline, according to Ember.  

 

In contrast, wind and solar combined achieved their highest ever year-on-year increases in both generation and installed capacity, at 90 TWh and 73 GW. Together they produced a record 27% of EU electricity in 2023. Wind generated 18% of EU power, or 475 TWh, equivalent to France’s total generation demand. Solar continued its strong growth to generate 9% EU electricity (246 TWh). Overall, renewables rose to a record 44% share of EU power in 2023, as hydropower also recovered from lows in 2022, the report finds.  

 

In addition to clean growth, falling electricity demand also contributed to the drop in fossil fuel generation. Demand fell by 3.4% (–94 TWh) in 2023 compared to 2022. This marked a 6.4% (–186 TWh) fall from 2021 levels when the energy crisis began, with just over a third (38%) attributed to a reduction in industrial electricity consumption. This rate of demand fall is not expected to be repeated in the coming years as electrification increases.  

 

‘As electrification takes off through more heat pumps, electric vehicles and electrolysers, the EU will enter a new era of rising electricity demand,’ says Ember’s Global Insights Director Dave Jones. ‘Renewables will need to keep pace with that demand increase in order to deliver the emissions cuts needed for a safe climate.’

 

To meet EU targets, wind and solar growth needs to be accelerating, the analysis shows. The REPowerEU plan foresees 55% of power from wind and solar by 2030, nearly doubling from 27% in 2023. Solar grew by a substantial 56 GW of additional capacity in 2023, compared to 41 GW in 2022. But it failed to match its 2022 year-on-year generation growth. And while wind generation growth was strong in 2023 at 13%, it needs to increase by 15% every year until 2030 to meet REPowerEU targets.

 

Ember’s analysis shows the EU continued its shift towards a system powered by wind and solar as 24% of hours in 2023 saw less than a quarter of electricity coming from fossil fuels, a major step up from just 4% of hours in 2022. Accordingly, there was increased attention on system-wide enablers for wind and solar growth in 2023, such as grids, storage and demand-side response.  

 

‘The energy crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not lead to coal and gas resurgence – far from it,’ continues Brown. ‘Coal is nearing phase-out, and as wind and solar grow, gas will be next to enter terminal decline. However, it is not time to get complacent. The EU needs a laser focus on rapidly deploying wind, solar and flexibility to create a system free of fossil fuels’ risks.’