Renewable energy outstrips coal for first time in Europe

Tom Atkinson investigates the achievements of this significant milestone and discovers all is not as green as it may seem.

12th February 2018
Renewable energy is becoming increasing cost effective.

As you may have heard, Europe’s renewable energy production has outstripped its coal-powered energy production for the first time. What does this actually mean? Well, according to a report compiled by two energy thinktanks – Agora Energiewende and Sandbag – wind, solar and biomass generation provided 679 terawatt hours to the European energy grid, whereas coal generation provided 669 terawatt hours. As you can see, the difference is hardly night and day but it is a significant milestone. Coal has traditionally been the stalwart of energy production in Europe, and indeed in the world. As anyone vaguely au-fait with the history of the North East will know, Newcastle and its surrounding areas were one of the biggest suppliers of mined coal to the UK from the 14th century until the 1960s.

This is excellent news for the progress the continent is making with the rise of renewables. It should be noted, though, that the gross amount of CO2 pollution is predicted to have been lifted by 1% from last year. This is likely a blip caused by the phasing out of nuclear capacity coupled with an abnormally frosty winter in certain parts of the continent meaning demand was high.

In the UK, however, demand has actually dropped by a significant 9%, despite continued economic growth. No-one is certain why this is happening, perhaps the years of energy saving campaigns are finally paying off. Demand has risen elsewhere in Europe, most notably Poland’s rise of 9%, leading to a rise in consumption of 0.7% across the continent.

We still rely heavily on ‘clean’ non-renewables like nuclear, which makes up 25.6% of generation

So, the cut and thrust of it is that we are seeing small, though significant, movements towards becoming coal-independent. But is this the whole story? Well, possibly not. The ‘renewables’ category the think tanks are using – ostensibly sensibly – includes biomass fuels. These include renewable incinerated waste like paper and biomatter. These are carbon neutral, as the new crops take in as much CO2 as the old ones released, however they have the effect of moving pollution to where the incinerators are – much to local angst.

Also, despite a reduction in the usage of gas, it remains our go-to fossil power source; it makes up 19.7% of the power generation across the continent. We still rely heavily on ‘clean’ non-renewables like nuclear, which makes up 25.6% of generation. Part of the issue is the instability of renewable sources. We need something reliable we can switch on if demand outstrips supply. Gas looks set to continue to be our go-to backup fuel.

Gas generation is also problematic. Shale gas fracking is currently used to secure our gas supply, but it is not without its controversies. It should also be noted that the manufacture of renewable generation equipment is environmentally costly, so time is needed to allow benefits to be realised.

Eastern European nations are steadfastly sticking to coal

This progress, though, is not evenly spread. Western and Northern Europe are moving towards total elimination of coal power in the next 4-7 years. Eastern European nations are steadfastly sticking to coal, though. This could spell issues with realising reductions in emissions into the coming centuries. In something of a break of the pattern in Western Europe, Spain have issued a Royal Decree preventing existing coal generation facilities from closing in order that Spain can use indigenous coal, despite Iberdrola (one of the largest power companies in Spain) wanting to close its coal generators down.

If continued efforts are made to move to renewable sources, and work continues in developing methods of storing surplus generated energy from renewable sources, there stands to be real benefits in terms of greenhouse emissions from these new forms of generating power.

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