After centuries of being powered by coal, Europe is accelerating away from this dirtiest and most expensive of fossil fuels and toward ever-cheaper renewables—a sea change that is also going global, as pandemic-shuttered economies around the world leave coal increasingly without buyers.
“According to a recent report by two of Europe’s leading energy analyst groups, the use of coal for power generation among the 27 countries of the European Union fell by a record 24% last year,” reports Climate News Network.
Germany-based Agora Energiewende, together with Ember, a London-based climate think tank, confirmed 2019 as “the first time that renewables have trumped coal in Europe’s generation mix,” with solar and wind together accounting “for 18% of the EU’s power generation, while coal produced 15%.”
Greenhouse gas emissions from the EU’s power sector have also plunged, with a 12% drop year over year, and a 30% reduction since 2012.
“Power sector CO2 emissions have never fallen so quickly,” said Ember electricity specialist David Jones. “Europe has become a test bed for replacing coal with wind and solar power, and the fast results should give reassurance to other countries that they can rapidly phase out coal, too.”
Austria, Belgium, and Sweden are already running completely coal-free, and the UK is working hard to achieve that goal by 2024: the Agora/Ember report found that only 2% of the UK’s total power came from coal last year, compared to more than 30% in 2012. Germany’s coal use has likewise declined precipitously, dropping from 45% in 2013 to 28% in 2019.
While several factors are behind the EU’s move away from coal, one of the major drivers is economics. “Falling installation and operating costs for solar and wind power plants have resulted in renewable energy becoming ever more competitive,” writes Climate News Network. Also a factor: reforms in Europe’s carbon trading scheme that penalize polluters more heavily.
But despite the progress, “all is not clean air and clear blue skies in Europe,” Climate News Network notes, “Coal is still a significant source of power in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria,” while both Serbia and lignite-rich Kosovo are still in the business of building coal-fired power plants.
Coal’s fortunes are sagging, however, and COVID-19 is hastening the fall. Bloomberg reports the fuel to be “the biggest loser” as the lights turn off in factories and offices around the world.
“In the U.S., coal’s share of power generation has dropped more than five percentage points since February on the nation’s biggest grid, while output from natural gas plants and wind farms held steady,” writes Bloomberg. The drop “comes down to cost”: as the prices of gas and renewables drop below that of coal, it simply becomes “the first fuel priced out of the market when demand falls.”
This reality is playing out in coal-dominated regions both inside and outside the EU, including Germany, China, and India. And what remains of coal in the UK is getting further walloped, with The Guardian reporting on April 28 that the country had “gone without coal-fired power generation for its longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution, breaking the existing record of 18 consecutive days.”