Europe was once wedded inextricably to coal. It was coal that made the Industrial Revolution happen and it was coal that powered the economic dominance of the continent.
Yet at long last coal is on the way out and fast.
Last year the use of coal fell by a whopping 24% in power generation within the European Union, according to a new report by the German think tank Agora Energiewende. “Hard coal generation dropped by 32%, while lignite decreased by 16%. This development is driven by CO2 price increases and deployment of renewables,” the report notes.
“Gas replaced around half of the coal, solar and wind the other half,” it adds. “The decline of coal will continue: Greece and Hungary both made commitments in 2019 to phase out coal, bringing the total of member states phasing out coal to 15. Only Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia are yet to start.”
Sweden and Austria have been the latest countries to eliminate coal from domestic electricity production by closing their very last coal power plans. Last month Sweden shuttered its only remaining coal-fired cogeneration plant, which was launched in 1989 to provide heat and electricity to people in Stockholm. The same week Austria closed its own last coal-fired plant, which serviced a district heating network in a municipality south of Graz.
Both countries bid farewell to coal well ahead of schedule in what has rightly been “a milestone” for clean energy on the continent. “With Sweden going coal free in the same week as Austria, the downward trajectory of coal in Europe is clear,” stressed Kathrin Gutmann, of the lobby group Europe Beyond Coal. “Coal is now in terminal decline all across Europe.”
Sweden and Austria have followed in the footsteps of Belgium, which was the first country in the EU to terminate the use of coal for heat and power generation back in 2016.
Several European countries have pledged to stop using coal in the next few years, including France, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Meanwhile, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland, Hungary and Denmark have said they will stop using coal for electricity generation by the end of the decade. Germany, a major coal user, will follow suit within two decades, according to plans.
In tandem with the phasing out of coal, renewables have been gaining ground within the EU. “For the first time, wind and solar combined provided more electricity than coal, contributing 18% of EU electricity in 2019. This is more than a doubling of market share since 2013,” Agora Energiewende explains.
“The increase in wind and solar generation was strongest in western Europe, while Poland and Greece have started to engage,” the think tank explains, adding, however, that “[t]he rest of eastern Europe is significantly lagging behind.”
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