By - Jim Vess

Renewable energy advances in the European Union as coal-fired generation continues to decline

Energize Weekly, February 6, 2019

Renewable energy generation became cost competitive with coal in the European Union (EU) in 2018 and continued to increase its share of the continent’s electricity production, according to an analysis by two energy think tanks.

The growth in renewables is coming at the expense of coal, and that is leading to a continued decline in EU carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to the study by Sandbag, a non-profit clean energy advocate based in London and Brussels, and Berlin-based Agora Energiewende.

“Europe is proving that replacing coal generation with renewable generation is the fastest way to cut emissions,” Dave Jones, European power analyst at Sandbag, said. “Between 2012 and 2018, Europe’s annual CO2 emissions from coal power plants have fallen by 250 million tons.”

Renewable resources accounted for 32.4 percent of electricity generation, up 2 percentage points from 2017, with wind accounting for 11.8 percent and hydropower 10.6 percent.

The remainder of renewable generation was made up of biomass at 6.1 percent and solar at 3.9 percent.

“While this year’s rise was mainly due to wind growth picking up and hydro returning back to normal, solar will be the next big thing: solar additions increased by more than 60 percent to almost 10 GW [gigawatt] in 2018 and could triple to 30 GW by 2022,” the report said.

Matthias Buck, Agora Energiewende’s head of European energy policy, said the “EU so far largely missed the opportunity to profit from the very favorable solar module prices, which mean that solar power from new plants is now often cheaper than electricity from conventional plants.”

France, Spain and Italy have set goals of solar outputs of 45 GW. Buck said they could set an example for the continent.

The combined renewables made up the largest share of electricity generation, followed by nuclear at 25 percent and natural gas at 18.9 percent. Hard coal and lignite provided 19.2 percent of the electricity. Overall, the EU countries consumed 3,275 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018.

Hard coal generation, however, was down 9 percent and is now 40 percent lower than in 2012. The proportion of electricity production from hard coal has already fallen 40 percent since 2012 in the United Kingdom (UK), including 5 percent in 2018, at the same time the UK was a leader in installing wind and biomass generation.

Germany and Spain announced they are preparing coal phaseout plans. If the two countries go forward, it would place three-quarters of Europe’s hard coal generation under phaseout plans by 2038 at the latest, the report said.

The remaining quarter of hard coal-fired capacity is in Poland, the study said.

The transition from lignite, a soft brown, high-polluting coal, is proving much harder, the study said. Lignite power generation fell by only 3 percent in 2018.

Half of Europe’s lignite generation is in Germany. While it is included in the phaseout of coal by 2038, the proposed plan would close more hard coal plants by 2030.

The other half of the lignite capacity is in six countries—Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Slovenia.

“These countries are not only slow to discuss their lignite transition, but they also have very unambitious plans for future wind and solar expansion so far. We hope their national climate plans will unveil a new ambition,” the study said.

Coal and natural gas generation costs rose in 2018 as the price of coal was up 15 percent, natural gas prices increased 30 percent and the price charge for CO2 emissions jumped 170 percent.

This led to an overall rise in the cost of electricity to 45 to 60 Euros (EUR) per megawatt-hour (MWh)—$51 to $69.

At the end of 2018, the short-term costs of coal and gas were above 50 EUR/MWh, while the median price in Germany’s October solar auction was 47 EUR/MWh. The median price for onshore wind was 63 EUR/MWh in the October auctions, though the cheapest project was below the cost of coal and gas.

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