Two countries are the reason the EU is hitting its ambitious renewable energy targets

Keep spinning.
Keep spinning.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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The EU now gets more than 30% of its electricity from renewable sources, up from 12% in 2000. At the current rate of growth, the European bloc can increase the proportion of renewables in its electricity mix to 50% by 2030, according to a new report (pdf) published by think tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende.

Even if you don’t live in the EU, how the bloc goes through its energy transition is worth paying attention to. The EU is big, rich, and plural. And though the European Commission provides an overarching structure for the behavior of its 28 members, those countries largely operate independently. The messy ways the EU achieves its ambitious climate change-related goals will provide a blueprint for other blocs, such as the African Union, and large countries like India and the US.

Here are five main takeaways from the report:

Renewables now produce more electricity than coal or natural gas

In 2017, wind, solar, and biomass combined to produce 20.9% of all electricity in the EU, compared to 20.6% for coal and 19.7% for natural gas 19.7%. (Hydro provided another 10.9% in 2017.) “This is incredible progress, considering just five years ago, coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass,” the report says.

But growth in renewables is uneven

Germany and the UK alone accounted for 56% of the EU’s overall growth in renewables in the past three years, even though the two countries generate less than 30% of the bloc’s total electricity. They’re far outpacing other EU member states in the effort to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

Electricity consumption rose by 0.7% in 2017

That marks the third consecutive year electricity consumption increased in the EU. One way to reduce emissions is to consume less. That means EU’s energy-efficiency measures aren’t cutting electricity use as much as they should, and electricity demand is expected to rise even further in the near future as more and more electric vehicles replace combustion-engine vehicles on the road.

CO2 emissions continued to grow in 2017

Carbon-dioxide emissions in the power sector didn’t change between 2016 and 2017, but overall CO2 emissions increased, due to rising industrial emissions, especially from steel production. Meanwhile, the increased contribution of wind and solar weren’t enough to make up for growing industrial emissions, especially as 2017 saw a decrease in nuclear power and low production from hydro (likely due to natural fluctuation).

Western Europe is phasing out coal, but Eastern Europe is sticking to it

The result is that Europe’s air quality is also divided across east and west, with countries in the east suffering because of coal use.

Other key facts about the state of electricy in the EU

  1. In the past seven years, the UK has increased the share of wind, solar, and biomass in its total electricity portfolio by 20 percentage points, going from 8% in 2010 to 28% in 2017. The only country that’s done better in that timeframe is Denmark, which achieved an incredible 42 percentage point increase from 32% to 74%. Both the Brits and the Danes can thank wind power for their, er, windfall.
  2. The UK reduced the share of coal in its electricity makeup from 28% in 2010 to 7% in 2017—22 percentage points—helping to sharply reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. Again, only Denmark had a more successful seven years, achieving a 23 percentage point drop from 44% to 21%.
  3. Since 2010, the UK has seen a 9% reduction in electricity demand, the largest of any EU country. In the same timeframe, the UK’s economy has continued to grow. By comparison, electricity demand fell 2% in Germany and 5% in France. Poland had the largest increased demand, growing 9% in the seven-year period. All of these economies grew in from 2010 to 2017.
  4. Germany performed relatively poorly. The proportion of the country’s electricity that came from coal fell from 42% in 2010 to 37% in 2017—just five percentage points. Germany now has the fourth most coal-intensive electricity mix in the EU. There are at least two reasons for the poor showing: First, Germany is phasing out zero-carbon nuclear power. Second, it has been exporting increasing amounts of electricity, while domestic demand remains high—forcing the country to continue to rely, to a significant extent, on coal.