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Wind and solar surpassed gas in the EU in 2022. New policy will help accelerate the transition

seven European Union flags are lined up in front of a building. the flags are blue with a ring of stars. the image is in black and white
Image credit: Unsplash / Guillaume Périgois

For the first time ever, wind and solar energy overtook gas generation in the European Union, accounting for 22% of electricity, besting fossil fuels by 2%, according to the European Electricity Review published on January 31 by the think tank Ember. Coal may have increased by 1.5%, generating 16% of the EU’s energy, but solar and wind prevented coal’s total takeover.

“Europe has avoided the worst of the energy crisis,” Ember’s head of data insights, Dave Jones said in a statement, referring to the crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and thus, coal’s reluctant return. “The shocks of 2022 only caused a minor ripple in coal power and a huge wave of support for renewables. Any fears of a coal rebound are now dead,” he said.

Solar energy led the charge in digging coal’s grave. At first, the outlook appeared bleak. As Europe scrambled to find new suppliers as Russia cut off its cheap fossil fuels, hydrogen and nuclear reached the lowest levels the continent has seen in two decades. But the sun rose to the occasion, growing by a record 39 terawatts, or up 24% in 2022. That’s almost twice its previous record, which helped to avoid €10 billion ($10,918,900,000) in gas costs. Twenty EU countries set new solar records in 2022.

Solar wasn’t alone in the fight. According to Giles Dickson, CEO of WindEurope, “Europe built 15 (gigawatts) GW of new wind. That’s not too bad given the challenges the wind industry faced last year.”

Still, he adds, “much more is needed to meet Europe’s renewables targets. REPowerEU has started to simplify the long and complex permitting procedures – good,” he said referring to the European Union’s package of measures to tackle the energy crisis.

“But the EU must also ramp up its clean energy industrial policy - and get its market design right so that Europe becomes an attractive place for renewables investments again. The Net Zero Industries Act needs to strengthen the wind energy supply chain and support investments in turbine and component manufacturing, ports, grids, and vessels.”

The Net Zero Industries Act Dickson refers to could, if passed, increase levels of state aid so that Europe can compete with the United States as a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles and other green products and reduce its dependence on China. The act is a portion of a larger plan to ensure Europe is a leader in the green revolution.

As last year’s energy crisis showed, the investment is dire. In 2022, the EU prepared for the worst. The union imported 22 million tonnes of extra coal last winter, in addition to placing 26 coal units on emergency standby. Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands especially resurrected coal, causing thousands of protesters to take to the streets. Despite the extra coal shipments throughout 2022, the EU only used a third of it, thanks to solar and wind power.

In fact, as the bloc transitions to renewables, Ember’s latest indications for this year suggest it will cause an acceleration of hydro and French nuclear’s recovery. As a result, the tank predicts gas will plummet by 20% in 2023, after rising by only 1% between 2021 and 2022.

According to the European Commission, the Net Zero Industries Act is a part of a broader Green Deal Industrial Plan, which will simplify regulation, speed up access to finance, enhance skills, and build “resilient” supply chains through new trade deals, while increasing energy security as Europe recovers from the crisis.

In addition to the Net Zero Industries Act, the plan encapsulates a Critical Raw Materials Act, which would aim to secure the EU supply of rare earth minerals vital to developing net-zero technologies.

As reported in CNN Business, EU leaders will debate the proposals next week, which in total would make €250 billion ($272 billion) available from existing EU funds. Like the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act — which the plan aims to compete directly with — it will offer tax breaks to businesses investing in net-zero tech, with a hope to keep innovators in Europe.

“The energy crisis has undoubtedly sped up Europe’s electricity transition,” Dave Jones said. “Europe is hurtling towards a clean, electrified economy, and this will be on full display in 2023. Change is coming fast, and everyone needs to be ready for it.”


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