In 2022 the media landscape saw multiple claims by various sources warning that Europe was making a U-turn in its energy policy and going back to the use of coal. Some of those voices were cautious, others more bombastic, some came from concerned experts, while others were propaganda publications seeking to promote the narrative that sanctions against Russia were wrecking the EU’s energy sector and forcing the countries to step back from their climate goals.
Claims about Europe’s energy failure were also wide spread in Russia. In June, for example, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin said at an international economic forum in Saint Petersburg that a coal renaissance caused by the USA was under way in Europe and it was undermining global efforts against climate change.
Factcheck.bg examined the available data for the past year to find out the extent to which those claims are true.
The use of coal did grow but only until August
According to preliminary data by the International Energy Agency (IEA) the global use of coal grew by 2% in 2022. In Europe the increase was bigger – around 6.5%.
A report by green energy think tank Ember calculated that last year coal’s share in the EU’s energy mix increased from 15% to 16%. Ember’s analysis is based on monthly data published by the EU member states as well as statistics by Eurostat and IEA from previous years. Their monthly data shows that the use of coal grew most significantly in March 2022 compared to March 2021. Over the last four months of last year, however, the use of coal in Europe declined on an annual basis. In January 2023 generation from coal also dropped by 11% and analysts do not expect a reversal on this trend.
How did Europe’s energy deficit come about
Last year’s challenges to Europe’s energy sector were not limited to the crisis caused by the disruption of energy deliveries from Russia.
On the one hand, nuclear energy generation in 2022 was at at its lowest in 20 years. Ember’s calculations show that around two thirds of that drop was caused by French nuclear reactors taken off the grid for maintenance. France has 56 nuclear reactors and normally covers about 15% of Europe’s energy needs through export. Last year, however, 26 of its reactors had to be switched off for maintenance. The remaining one third of the decline in nuclear energy was due to Germany’s ongoing policy for moving away from nuclear power.
At the same time, due to extreme drought in many parts of Europe, hydropower generation was also at its lowest since 2000. In July the EU produced less hydropower than solar power for the first time ever, while Italy and Spain generated approximately 40% less hydro energy than usual. Droughts in France and Portugal also caused a substantial reduction in hydro generation.
Growth in renewables largely made up for the shortage
Ember’s report shows that the unusually low production of nuclear and hydropower caused an annual energy shortage of 7% but only one sixth of it was covered by coal. The rest was compensated by a rise in renewables such as wind and solar, which in 2022 for the first time became the EU’s number one energy source.
New solar capacity launched in 2022 throughout the EU was nearly 50% more compared to 2021, while total installed solar capacity increased by 25% and is now double in comparison to 2018.
The report shows that coal energy grew by 28 TWh in 2022, while wind and solar increased by 73 TWh in total compared to the previous year.
Fear of a winter gas shortage made countries prepare crisis plans
In 2021 the prices of energy resources grew as a result of economic recovery from the pandemic. For some countries who were importing fuels from abroad while sitting on coal deposits of their own, using that coal became a more attractive option. High energy prices allow coal energy, whose costs include the price of CO2 emissions, to still make a profit for its producers.
In 2022 the war in Ukraine was added to those factors, followed by the sanctions on Russia and the crisis caused by disrupted gas deliveries in Europe. For countries like Germany, who received a substantial part of their energy resources from Russia before the war, using their own coal now became a question not just of economic common sense but one of energy security. Under pressure to get ready for the winter, Germany allowed some coal facilities from its grid reserve to come back online and help the country’s efforts to save gas. Other EU countries like Austria, Italy, France and the Netherlands also developed crisis plans which included the reactivation of closed down coal reactors. Poland delayed its plans for closing down its coal mines and increased their output, while suspending its ban on the especially polluting and less efficient brown coal known as lignite.
Coal is the dirtiest energy source and the total capacity of coal power facilities in Europe has been going down steadily since 2000. In 2005 the EU launched its Emissions Trading Scheme, whose purpose is to curb the amounts of CO2 released into the atmosphere by making clean technologies more profitable and polluting ones – less cost-effective. Nevertheless, warnings of a return to coal have been circulating at least since 2011, when Germany made the final decision to phase out its nuclear power plants by the end of 2022. Germany is the biggest energy consumer among EU member states. Under the European Green Deal the EU has made a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050 and cut its carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030.
Countries stocked up on coal but did not burn it
Data collected by Ember shows that last year a total of 26 coal power facilities were restarted throughout the EU or existing plans for their closedown were postponed.
However Europe managed to secure alternative gas supplies and to avert the crisis, while winter proved unusually mild. Higher temperatures combined with energy saving measures led to low energy demand over the last four months of the year. Low demand drove down gas prices and some elements of the crisis plans never had to be activated. The report shows that from October throughout December the 26 restarted coal facilities in Europe worked at an average of 18% of their overall capacity and produced less than 1% of the EU’s annual amount of coal energy.
According to the report, Europe increased its coal reserves last year, creating the impression of a ‘coal renaissance’ but in reality only a third of those coal reserves were put to use. Meanwhile at the end of February 2023 gas storage facilities in the EU are still on average over 60% full, according to statistics by Gas Infrastructure Europe, while Gazprom exports are at their lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union. That means that the warnings of an energy catastrophe in Europe as a result of sanctions on Russia have so far not materialised.
What are the expectations for 2023
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) the shocks caused by the war in Ukraine are likely to lead to an unprecedented rise in renewable energy. The agency predicts that the high prices of fossil fuels and the countries’ urgent pursuit of energy security will speed up investment into renewables like solar and wind even further. The IEA has updated its forecast from last year on the development of renewables until 2027 and increased it by 30%. It now expects 2 400 GW new renewable capacity to be added in the next five years – an amount equal to China’s total energy capacity at the present moment. According to the agency, 90% of all new capacity to be installed till 2027 will be renewable. The IEA also expects renewables to become the leading energy source globally within the next three years.
According to Ember’s forecast, in 2023 fossil fuel energy in the EU may drop by as much as 20%, which would be several times more than the growth of coal last year. The 2022 energy crisis looks likely to speed up the EU’s green transition instead of slowing it down, as Russian media were predicting last year.
EU countries did use more coal in 2022 but the significant and lasting return to coal that was predicted did not happen. Coal temporarily provided extra security in the context of an energy deficit and the urgent need to break away from the dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Europe’s energy shortage was covered almost entirely by the substantial rise in new renewable capacity. The EU’s goals on emission reduction and carbon neutrality remain unchanged.