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Renewables: Is Europe Still Leading the Charge on Renewables?

by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Instructor

For most of the 30 years I have spent working in the energy industry, renewables have been viewed as an

interesting yet impracticable source of electricity except in a few unique circumstances. Utilities loved to do demonstration projects but never actually considered replacing fossil- or nuclear-fueled power plants with wind or solar. In the last few years, however, such thinking has begun to shift, and a few leading European countries, U.S. states, and possibly now China are leading the change in thinking.

The U.S. EIA rather conservatively estimates that non-hydro renewables will increase from 4% of our generation in 2010 to 9% in 2035. But can we look elsewhere for a suggestion that growth rates might be more dramatic?

In 2001, the European Union (EU) adopted the Renewable Energy Directive that set a target of 21% of electricity from renewable sources by 2010 [1]. This directive was replaced in 2009 by another directive that set a target for renewables to make up 20% of all energy (not just electricity) consumed in the EU by 2020 [2]. Since it is currently easier to utilize renewable sources in electricity production than in other energy uses such as transport, this suggests an even higher percentage of renewable electricity.

According to the European Wind Association (EWEA):

  • Europe slightly exceeded the 21% renewable electricity target in 2010 [3] (after subtracting out
    about  13% of hydro generation this is equivalent to a non-hydro percentage of 8% compared to 4%
    in the U.S.)
  • More than one-third of Europe’s power could come from renewables by 2020 with as much as 50%
    by 2030

We will find out soon if such growth rates will become actual European Union policy as the European Commission
is expected to present a post-2020 renewable policy this May as part of its development of the 2050 energy roadmap. If you are getting the idea that Europe plans its energy policy on a much longer timeframe than we seem able to do in the U.S., you are right!          

         Eurostat (http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/energy/data/main_tables)

         U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (http://www.eia.gov/electricity/data.cfm#sales)


Most of the growth in Europe between 2005 and 2010 came from onshore wind. The future is expected to see strong growth in offshore wind and solar power. Renewables are already having significant impacts on
European electric markets according to a recent webinar by Platts[4]. Points made in the webinar include:

  • Onshore wind will be at grid cost parity in 5 years
  • Wind is forcing down market prices significantly in some regions
  • On low load days, wind can meet most of the electric demand in Germany and Spain
  • Solar  capacity has surpassed wind capacity in Italy and is near cost parity with traditional generation sources in that country
  • Traders now discuss the "solar season," which impacts the power price
  • Europe is moving forward with plans for strengthened transmission grid interconnections between
    regional markets to facilitate renewable integration
  • A new project called the Supergrid is planned to connect offshore wind projects in North Sea

Some observers question whether renewables will continue growing in Europe given the ongoing financial
issues and a number of governments reducing renewable incentives. But the Platts webinar raised the idea that a period of low government spending could favor continued growth of renewables. Why? With limits on spending, governments are reluctant to support big-ticket capital investments in generation whether by government utilities or the private sector.  This works against investments in nuclear, coal with carbon capture, and even gas units since they will require investment in new gas pipelines and/or LNG import terminals if too many are built. 

Conversely, renewables can keep adding capacity in smaller increments.
Ongoing growth in renewables could allow politicians to avoid making decisions
on highly visible large capital expenditures until suddenly there is so much renewable power that other projects are not needed.

So will Europe’s renewable generation grow to the level supported by EWEA? It remains to be seen, but there are reasons to think that such an outcome is not implausible.

Learn more about renewable energy and the resources and technologies it encompasses in our new online course Renewable Energy Overview.
Click here
for details.


References and resources:

[1] http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/energy/renewable_energy/l27035_en.htm

[2] http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/energy/renewable_energy/en0009_en.htm

[3] http://www.ewea.org/index.php?id=60&no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=

[4] http://www.platts.com/Videos/2012/Jan/renewables

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