Renewable power has taken up a record share of global electricity production since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Reuters review of data, suggesting a transition away from polluting fossil fuels could be accelerated in the coming years.
Advocates of traditional energy have long argued that clean energy sources, like solar and wind farms, which depend on fickle weather, cannot be trusted to provide steady supplies of electricity into national grids that were designed to operate in tandem with reliable coal and gas generators.
But the past three months have shown that renewable energy has become more dependable, sector experts say, accounting for well over half of output in some European countries, while grid operators proved they could successfully manage larger doses of fluctuating energy flows.
“This has been a real test of how resilient the grids are, and we know they coped because the lights stayed on,” said Rory McCarthy, energy storage senior analyst at global consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie.
“Maybe this will give confidence to governments and policy makers who were apprehensive, that they can be more ambitious about the number of renewables on the grid.”
However, before governments take decisions based on recent experiences, they will have to answer various questions, says Michelle Manook, chief executive of the World Coal Association, a lobby group for the industry.
These include how the system would have coped in the mid of winter, when sunshine is at a premium, or how it will manage when the economy picks up and demand gathers pace.
“What seems little known or understood is that a carbon-free electricity generation system based wholly on renewables … is not currently attainable,” Manook told Reuters.
The recent boost for wind and solar power came for all the wrong reasons: the health crisis has tipped the world into recession, pushing down electricity usage by more than a fifth in some countries, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).
Most grid operators automatically turned to the cheapest energy supplies to meet the falling demand. Wind and solar power costs very little to generate once the installations are built and is often backed by government mandates and subsidies. As a result, more expensive fossil fuel sources were the first to be pulled.
Data from Finnish energy technology group Wartsila, collated from Europe’s electricity grid operators, shows renewables generated an average of 44% of power across the 27-nation bloc and Britain from April to June, when many countries were in lockdown, against 37.2% in the same period last year. Daily peaks hit 53%.
The leading performer was Austria which saw renewables average 93% from a previous 91%, thanks largely to hydropower, the data showed. Portugal saw its share of renewable energy surge to 67% from 49%, while in Europe’s biggest economy Germany it averaged 54% up from 47.5%.
“We are seeing figures we weren’t expecting to see for another 10 years,” said Matti Rautkivi, Wartsila’s director of strategy and business development.
The increase in the share of renewables is essential if the European Union wants to achieve its climate and energy goals and cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.
The EU’s target is to meet 32% of its energy needs, including transport, from renewable sources by 2030, but will review these goals later this year.
“It is encouraging that the penetration of renewables has increased,” EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told Reuters.
“We are currently assessing the impact of the more ambitious 2030 climate objectives and different scenarios of getting there, including the role of renewables,” she said.
Britain’s National Grid (NG.L) has set itself a target of being able to operate a completely carbon-free electricity system by 2025, which it says would be the world’s first. The coronavirus lockdown provided an early test, with renewables hitting a peak share of 67.5% of electricity in May. The country also went without coal power for 67 days from April 10 to June 16 – the longest such stretch since 1882.
While clean power is increasingly available, storing it and ensuring a smooth supply remains highly complicated. Winds die down, clouds cover the sun, or, alternatively, gales can blow on bright, sunny days.
The grid managed fluctuations by relying, in part, on a tool called “demand side response” (DSR), said Julian Leslie, head of networks at National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO).