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EU Renewables still boom, but growth slows

By Dave Elliott

The European Union is on track to meet its goal for renewables to supply 20% of its energy by 2020, led by Sweden already at 53.9%, Latvia at 37.6% and Austria at 33%, but with Britain lagging far behind – the UK is at number 24 in the most recent EU 28 league table (for 2015), at 8.2%, only beating Luxembourg (5%), Malta (5.3%), the Netherlands (5.8%) and Belgium (7.9%). The UK may not be missed in this respect, at least, when it leaves the EU.

The European Commission says renewable accounted for 16.7% of overall EU energy consumption in 2015 (updated here). And progress has continued since then on all fronts, including heat and transport, with the longer term aim of increasing overall energy efficiency by more than 30% by 2030 now looking credible – although it won’t be easy.

In terms of electricity, 86% of the 24.5GW of new EU power capacity added last year was renewable. Over half of it was wind, which now supplies over 10% of EU electricity, from 154GW. IRENA puts Europe’s total renewable capacity (including non EU countries) at 487GW.

EU power-related emissions fell 4.5% in 2016, primarily through a huge switch from coal generation to gas generation, according to Sandbag and Agora Energiewende. Year-on-year, coal generation across Europe fell by 12%, whilst gas increased by 20%. Half of the switch was in the UK, with many coal plants permanently closed and a higher carbon price taking effect. There were also switches from coal to gas in Germany, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, in part due to a temporary fall in gas price during 2016. Though renewables grew, growth was 3% less than in 2015, due to low PV & biomass growth and, no doubt, the cutbacks in financial support.

The European Commission’s Clean Energy for All Europeans plan for revamping green energy (see my earlier post), with an emphasis on self-generation and more competitive markets, is meeting with some opposition from, on one had, those reliant on fossil fuels and on the other, from those keen to promote renewables more, who see it as too weak.  It doesn’t bode well for the future, given also the shift to competitive tendering/contract auctions and away from feed in tariffs (FiTs), with linked concerns that renewables may lose their guaranteed use privileged ‘must take’ delivery status.

For example, Germany, the EU leader in renewable capacity terms, with 106GW in all by 2016, has around 47.6GW of on shore wind capacity installed and more planned. But, see my last post, growth may slow. While as old FiT contracts expire, older less viable projects have been dismantled (~ 2GW so far), there are many new ones (3-4 GW p.a. in 2014/15), and old ones have been upgraded with new more efficient turbines – so called ‘repowering’. Using existing sites is obviously easier, but all projects face the new 2.8GW p.a. limit on overall wind capacity expansion imposed from January to reduce pass-through costs to consumers. So, though they can compete in the new contract auction process that’s replaced FiTs, all projects, new and old, are likely to fall off.

The new EC plan does include a 50% by 2030 renewable electricity target, but SolarPower Europe says that new solar power installation on the continent fell 20% year-on-year in 2016, dropping from 8.6 GW of grid-connected PV in 2015 to around 6.9 GW in 2015. In contrast, the rest of the world saw demand grow by 50%, with 76.1 GW of solar added last year (including Europe) compared to 51.2 GW of on-grid solar installed in 2015. China led the way, growing by more than 125% over the course of 2016 with some 34.2 GW added. The US (14 GW of new capacity), Japan (8.6 GW) and India (4.5 GW) were the next largest markets, although Japan’s 2016 installation figures were down on 2015. According to SolarPower Europe’s head of market intelligence Michael Schlema, the EU is now in danger of being eclipsed by “Asian powerhouses” in terms of both solar power production and installation. ‘Even the US, with a much smaller population than the EU’s 28 member states combined, added about twice as much solar power capacities in 2016.’

So it may be a bit grimmer long term, with offshore wind being one of the few bright spots, and, for a change, the UK is in the lead there, with around 5GW in place or under construction, although Germany is catching up and Denmark doing well with low cost projects. Even Italy is now going offshore. But soon, a mixed blessing, the UK will be off alone. Though it’s been said it will still take a lead on climate policy.

Meantime, we have had the French elections and soon the German elections are coming up, with energy policy being at least one of the key issues. In France, Macron confirmed the green energy plan but the country is still dealing with the political and legal fallout from the alleged falsification of data on nuclear plant components and the faults suspected in the steel used for some of its reactor vessels. That led to several plants being taken off line for tests and to serious disruption.

In Germany the costs and viability of the Energiewende green energy programme are a political issue.  There is no shortage of negative commentary on that. However, it is still popular nationally and a PWC study suggested that it could help Germany to save €149bn net by 2020 – €274bn, less the €125bn investment costs.

But there will be a need for more flexible grid balancing and a halt to the use (and export) of coal power – a big issue for Germany as well as other EU countries, along with cuts to subsidies.

Even so, despite the cutbacks, the Energiewende, with its aim still being to get 80% of Germany’s power from renewables by 2050, remains a beacon of hope in an otherwise often gloomy EU political mood.

Certainly, with renewables already supplying over 32% of Germany’s electricity, there is reason to be hopeful. Moreover, Sweden, already at over 50%, and Denmark at 43%, are doing even better than Germany in renewable electricity supply and have even more ambitious targets, both aiming for 100% by 2050. Despite cutbacks, France (44.6GW) Spain (50GW) and Italy (51.5GW) are also doing quite well with renewables while, with their large hydro inputs, Austria (at over 70%), Portugal (which hit 63% at one point), and Norway (at near 100%) lead the renewable electricity supply race – although Scotland, with very little hydro, is now at near 60% of power use and still growing fast. Moreover, it is aiming to match 50% of total energy use with renewables by 2030. As noted above, Sweden has already surpassed that goal, and like some other countries with large hydro capacities, is well ahead of the current EU aim of 20% of all energy by 2020 and even the 27% by 2030 target. But so too is Denmark (at 31% of all energy in 2015), with no hydro.

Clearly the UK is far behind in this race to higher total energy percentages. And in terms of electricity supply, although the UK has done a bit better of late (see my next post), now getting 24% of its electricity from renewables, looking at the electricity percentage data above, it still trails behind most countries. However, choosing his words carefully, the then UK Minister for Climate Change and Industry, Nick Hurd, said on March 14th : ‘Few countries, certainly in Europe, have done more than we have to expand renewable energy electricity capacity since 2010’. Well yes, 33.5GW in 2016, but it did start from a very low level, 9.2GW in 2010, and many others now have higher total capacities than the UK, and as we have seen, many, large and small, have higher percentage electricity shares.

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