Renewable Energies, Pillar of European Energy Policy

by Andris Piebalgs, European Commission

Until the late 1990s, low oil and energy prices without carbon constraints created the conditions for a European economy dependent on fossil fuels. At the same time these conditions acted as a brake to innovation and investments in new energy technologies. Since the end of the 1990s, environmental concerns and increased European energy dependence on oil shifted the trend.

The share of renewable energy in final energy consumption increased from 7.6 to 8.5 percent during 2000-05. Renewable energy use has progressed rapidly in electricity, where the European Union introduced a system of national indicative targets and a requirement to take steps to achieve them. Progress has begun in renewable energy transport following the introduction of a European system of national indicative targets. Little progress has been made in heating and cooling, which is not covered by European legislation.

Making the energy system more sustainable and secure is one of Europe’s greatest challenges. The EU Energy and Climate Package proposed in January 2008 seeks to effectively address these challenges. It sets ambitious targets for Europe to achieve by 2020. These include cutting EU greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent, reducing energy use by 20 percent and boosting renewable energy to 20 percent of the EU’s overall energy consumption.

In 2005, the gross electricity generation from renewable energy was 464 TWh per year, representing almost 14 percent of gross electricity generation. Most renewable electricity produced (64 percent) originated from hydropower plants, wind accounted for 16 percent and biomass for 18 percent. Geothermal and solar energy accounted for almost 1.5 percent and 0.5 percent, according to Eurostat, a regional yearbook that offers information on EU members and candidate countries.

By 2020, the estimated potential for renewable energy source (RES) electricity should reach up to 1,200 TWh per year, resulting in a more than 2.5 times increase of the electricity generated from RES sources. The growth especially in wind and solar energy during the past few years makes such forecasts definitively ambitious but within reach if we get the framework conditions right for these energies.

The RES heat energy output is approximately 50 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) a year and will reach by 2020 approximately 120 Mtoe a year.

The Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) proposed in November 2007 by the European Commission offers a blueprint for Europe to develop a world-class portfolio of affordable, clean, efficient and low-emission energy technologies. The SET-Plan reinforces coherence among national, European and international efforts. Member states will be able to plan joint actions and coordinate policies and programs. The process will benefit from a comprehensive information system called SETIS. To ensure implementation, the European Energy Research Alliance is bringing together national research institutes. The European industry, under the umbrella of European Industrial Initiatives, will move toward more rapid deployment of technologies. Priority areas are offshore wind, solar, bioenergy, carbon dioxide capture, transport and storage, smart electricity grids and nuclear fission.

Andris Piebalgs speaks at a press conference by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on the internal market energy package.
Click here to enlarge image

In 2007 the installed capacity of wind energy was 50 GW, enjoying a growth rate of 25 percent per year during the past few years. Under the SET-Plan implementation action, the sector has agreed to deliver 12 to14 percent of EU electricity consumption by 2020, which represents installed capacity of 180 GW by that time. This would reduce costs for offshore and onshore, increase competitiveness and achieve progress, especially in large-scale grid integration for offshore wind.

The total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic (PV) in 2006 was 3.4 GWp with high growth rates in the order of 40 percent. The industry has recently unveiled an estimated maximum potential for the PV systems of almost 400 GW by 2020, which corresponds to 12 percent of the EU electricity consumption. Costs will continue to drop with increased deployment and continuing research and development up to reaching cost competitiveness with other electricity generation.

The electricity grid will have to adapt and accommodate new and large amounts of electricity delivered by renewable energy sources. The developments will encompass a system approach–not just technologies–the main objective being to develop an efficient, reliable, flexible, accessible and cost-effective European electricity grid that will allow, inter alia, the large uptake of renewable energies.

Carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) can significantly reduce CO2 emissions from power generation, industry and the production of synthetic transport fuels. CCS could reduce CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas use in these sectors to near zero. All the individual elements needed for CCS have been demonstrated, but there is an urgent need for an integrated full-scale demonstration plant. The energy strategy for Europe foresees up to 12 large-scale demonstration projects for coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2015.

The bioenergy sector is a complex sector addressing multiple sources and delivering products for electricity, heating and transport markets. Research in second-generation biofuels is one of the cutting-edge areas of energy technology that with biorefineries can help decrease biofuel costs by offering the possibility of making several additional products simultaneously from the same feedstock.

Technology is vital to achieve the EU Energy and Climate Change Policy objectives. The impact of the SET-Plan is mainly related to the development mechanisms and instruments to achieve the 2020 targets and the need to anticipate development of the technologies by accelerating their deployment. The potential is there. It is now essential to unlock it and find appropriate ways to work for industry, research and government together to achieve common targets.


Andris Piebalgs is commissioner for energy for the European Commision (EC). The EC embodies and upholds the general interest of the European Union and is the driving force in the Union’s institutional system. More information on the EC may be found at

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