Last year, Europe was on the brink of an energy breakdown as Russian gas flows dried up and most of Europe doubled down on renewable energy.
The renewable energy bet paid off, in a way. Solar and wind electricity generation in Europe hit a record in 2022. In fact, for the first time in history, wind and solar together produced more electricity than natural gas-fired power plants.
There was just one problem with that. Lower hydro and nuclear output more than wiped out the significance of that record output.
Droughts were severe in Europe last year. They threatened major trade routes such as the Rhein in Germany and the Po in Italy. And they also caused severe declines in hydropower electricity output. For example, in Spain, hydropower output dropped by almost half because of the droughts. All this might repeat this year as well.
Meanwhile, nuclear wasn’t doing so swell, either. France suddenly found that years of underinvestment in maintenance would have consequences: emergency reactor shutdowns for repairs and maintenance.
The problems cost EDF a massive annual loss of $19 billion as half of its reactors had to be shut down for maintenance. Most blamed the pandemic, but nuclear experts such as Mark Nelson saw the roots of the problem much further into the past when France decided to bet on renewables over nuclear.
Despite all these issues, in October, PV Magazine wrote a cheerful article about how wind and solar had compensated for the reduced output from hydro and nuclear power plants. Wind and solar, the article said, accounted for 24 percent of Europe’s electricity generation between March and September, while at the same time, hydro output fell by 21 percent and nuclear fell by 19 percent.
That might have been the case in 2022, but this year things are different. Wind and solar are still producing electricity at a record rate, it appears, but declines in hydropower and nuclear output are so severe they are more than offsetting those record output rates, Reuters’ Gavin Maguire reported in a recent column.
Maguire noted that Europe managed to boost its wind and solar power capacity by 9 percent last year to 57.29 GW, which was a record high. At the same time, however, the troubles of hydro and nuclear dragged total electricity generation down and are still doing it.
Over the first quarter, European power generation stood at 1,213 terrawatt-hours, which was 6.4 percent lower than output for the first quarter of 2023. That’s according to climate change advocacy Ember. According to Maguire, this is not necessarily alarming in itself. This time last year, Europe was coming out of pandemic lockdowns, and demand was soaring.
Where things could become problematic is later in the year as business activity across the continent begins to rebound after the energy crunch of last year, the Reuters columnist noted. And most of the Russian gas that was available last year is no longer an option.
French nuclear is a major source of hope, but it will be a while yet before output recovers. At the moment, French nuclear power plants are producing 17.5 percent less than the average output rate for 2020 and 2021. That’s down from 23 percent for last year, so there is some progress, and that’s a good sign.
Hydro is trickier because, although to a lesser extent than wind and solar, hydro is weather-dependent. With Europe’s mild winter that saw a lot less snow than usual, a repeat of last year’s drought is not out of the question. In fact, it is a distinct possibility.
What this means is that Europe may need to import a lot more LNG from its new top supplier, the United States. Some have worried that the EU is building too much LNG import infrastructure that would become stranded assets before too long, but right now, those assets appear to be vital for the bloc’s energy survival.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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