September 23rd, 2023 marks 4 years since the announcement of the decision to phase out lignite in Greece by 2028. What has been the country’s actual performance during this period? To what extent has electricity production from lignite, fossil gas and clean energy sources changed? With regard to the above, how does Greece compare to the EU-27 as a whole and, in particular, to the 17 Member States that still have lignite and/or coal in their electricity production mix?
The comparative analysis of the monthly data collected by the think tank Ember for the whole of Europe and by the Independent Power Transmission Operator (IPTO) for Greece shows that:
1) With a 57.7% decrease in lignite-based electricity production in the first 8 months of 2023 compared to the same period in 2019, Greece ranks 2nd in terms of reducing the use of solid fossil fuels in electricity production, behind Spain (-69.5%). Moreover, it ranks 1st among the nine (9) EU-27 countries that use domestically mined lignite and/or coal (Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechia, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia). It is worth noting that, in Greece, 223 hours with zero lignite contribution were recorded within the first 8 months of 2023; in contrast, there was at least one lignite plant in operation during all 8760 hours of 2019.
The European Union, as a whole, is on the same path to decoupling from solid fossil fuels. Following the complete phase out of lignite and coal in Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Portugal, there are now only 17 Member States that use solid fossil fuels to meet their electricity demand. However, these Member States have also achieved a significant reduction in the use of lignite and coal. In particular, compared to 2019, in 2023 (first 8 months of each year) the EU-27 as a whole reduced its use of solid fossil fuels, namely lignite and coal, by 28.4%. The same trend was recorded almost across Europe. Ireland constitutes an exception to this rule, with solid fossil fuels more than doubling compared to 2019; nonetheless, in absolute terms, these fuels still have a very limited contribution to meeting the country’s demand (approximately 4% of electricity production in 2023).
A large decrease in solid fossil fuels in the European Union is also observed in the first 8 months of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022 (-28%). It should be noted that, especially in the first half of 2022, there was a temporary increase in the use of lignite and coal, mainly in order to offset the drastic reduction in nuclear and hydroelectric power that occurred in 2022 and, to a much lesser degree, to compensate for the reduced fossil gas flows from Russia.
Greece, in particular, records a 22.2% reduction in lignite-based electricity production in the first 8 months of 2023, as compared to the same period in 2022, thus ranking 10th among the 17 countries that use lignite and coal in their electricity mix, and 3rd among lignite-producing countries, behind only Bulgaria (-44.2%) and Germany (-31.3%). Both the latter, however, unlike Greece, had greatly increased their electricity production from solid fossil fuels in 2022 compared to 2021.
2) The drastic reduction in the use of the most polluting solid fossil fuels was accompanied by a parallel decrease in the use of fossil gas. Thus, in the first 8 months of 2023, the cumulative contribution of fossil fuels (lignite, coal and fossil gas) in the EU-27 decreased by 22.8% and 20.9% compared to the same period in 2019 and 2022, respectively. Only two (2) Member States out of 17 that still use lignite or coal in their electricity production mix are moving in the opposite direction: Croatia, which between 2019 and 2023 increased its fossil fuel use by 37.2%, and -more subtly- Slovakia, which recorded a 4.1% increase compared to 2022.
Greece exceeded the European average with regard to both reference years. With a -30.3% and a -25.1% decrease in the cumulative use of lignite, coal and fossil gas, as compared to 2019 and 2022, respectively, it ranks 4th and 6th among Member States. Compared to 2019, Finland records the largest reduction (-64.5%), followed by the Netherlands (-37.5%), Spain (-33.1%) and then Greece (-30.3%).
3) In the four years since the phasing-out of lignite in Greece was announced, the reduction in the use of fossil fuels has been largely offset by the development of renewable energy sources (RES). In the EU-27, electricity production from RES, including large hydro and bioenergy, increased by 22.5% from 2019 to 2023 (first 8 months of the year). In 1st place, the Netherlands recorded a 153.3% increase, followed by Poland (+113.4%) and Hungary (+89%). Despite the impressive growth of RES observed in both Poland and Hungary, the contribution of clean energy to meeting demand still lags far behind that of fossil fuels (-63.2% in Poland and -29.2% in Hungary) in the first 8 months of 2023. In contrast, the steady progress of RES in the Netherlands over the past 4 years resulted in their contribution exceeding that of fossil fuels for the first time in 2023 (first 8 months of the year).
With a 50.2% increase, Greece ranks 4th in terms of growth of electricity production from clean energy among the 17 Member States that include lignite or coal in their electricity production mix. Nonetheless, this progress occurred between 2019 and 2022, as between 2022 and 2023 (first 8 months of each year), the cumulative electricity production from RES and large hydropower remained stagnant, due to a decrease in the contribution of hydropower, which offset an increase in RES production. It should be noted that, over the same period, the share of clean energy in meeting demand rose significantly. However, this occurred due to a decrease in electricity consumption and does not reflect an increase in the contribution of clean energy in absolute terms.
4) Despite the stagnation observed between 2022 and 2023, the remarkable development of RES in recent years resulted in Greece being now one of the 11 Member States, where, in the first 8 months of 2023, electricity production from clean energy sources exceeded that from fossil fuels. In particular, renewables and large hydro contributed 26.6% more than lignite and fossil gas combined in the first 8 months of 2023. Given that, until now, fossil fuel production had consistently exceeded that of clean energy sources in the first 8 months of the year, 2023 represents a milestone year for Greece, as well as for both the EU-27 as a whole and the Netherlands, while in other Member States clean sources had already surpassed fossil fuels in previous years.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that 7 (in blue) of the aforementioned 11 Member States -where electricity production from clean energy sources in the first 8 months of 2023 exceeded that from fossil fuels- use nuclear power in their electricity production mix. Therefore, these states could and can replace part of the reduced fossil fuel electricity production with an increased contribution of nuclear energy rather than RES. Thus, Greece is one of just 4 Member States (in green) possessing no nuclear power, whose electricity production from clean energy sources exceeded that from fossil fuels in the first 8 months of 2023. The other 3 Member States are Denmark (+401.5%), Croatia (+127.1%), and Germany (+31.6%), which retired its last three nuclear plants in April 2023. Nevertheless, it should also be underlined that, in Croatia, clean energy comes primarily from large hydropower plants, rather than from wind and solar, which hold the lion’s share in Denmark, Germany and Greece.
The above results indicate that, 4 years following the decision to phase-out lignite in Greece, the use of lignite and coal has been drastically reduced both in Greece and the whole EU-27. This trend is not expected to change in the coming years, given that carbon prices on the emissions exchange are projected to remain high as a result of the recent revision of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) Directive. Furthermore, of the 17 EU Member States still using solid fossil fuels in 2023, 12 have committed to a complete phase-out before 2030, three (3) by 2035, and one, Bulgaria, either by 2038 or 2040. Poland, alone, still refuses to make a specific commitment; nonetheless, one of its lignite regions has independently decided to phase-out solid fossil fuels by 2030.
Finally, the analysis also showed that the EU-27 is moving away from fossil fuels altogether -including fossil gas- and replacing them with cleaner forms of energy; the decline in consumption has played a significant role in this trend. However, both the recent energy crisis, which was exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the devastating disasters that have recently occurred (also) as a result of the escalating climate crisis, indicate that the independence from fossil fuels and the shift towards RES both need to accelerate. What is more, this need becomes even more urgent given the increase in electricity consumption, which is expected in the coming years due to the electrification of several sectors of the economy.