The mood amongst exhibition visitors and conference delegates gathering in Vienna in early February for the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) annual event was one of short term frustration, but real optimisim for the long term. And with day one speakers such as Robert Clover from Make Consulting declaring wind will meet 50% of Europe's electricity demand by 2050 – becoming the cheapest technology along the way after 2020 – who can blame them?
Renewable energy represented 69% of all new power capacity in 2012, while in a continuing trend fuel oil, coal and nuclear capacity saw negative growth due to decommissioning. In 2012, the EU wind energy sector installed 11.6GW of new capacity (up on the 9.4GW installed in 2011) to bring the cumulative installed total in Europe to 105.6GW, according to EWEA's annual statistics (presented at the show).
Wind energy alone represented 26% of all new EU power capacity installed last year, and investments of between €12.8–17.2bn.
Wind power has some way to go before hitting the 50% supply mark – it is now meeting 7% of Europe's electricity demand, up from 6.3% at end 2011. However, Clover suggested onshore wind will achieve parity with other electricity-generating technologies feeding into the grid in Europe by 2015, followed by offshore in 2022/2023. Throw in costs for carbon capture and storage technology for thermal generation down the line, costs (for non renewables generation) could rise by 50%, meaning “renewables are increasingly becoming a profitability issue for thermal generation”, he said.
And with water usage now high on policy makers agenda (see our blog, Water use in electricity generation: the sobering facts that make a case for wind and solar power), Clover also noted that wind power “has minimal water requirements”, giving it another edge over most fossil fuels.
Down to reality
So leave it to Faith Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, and EWEA CEO Christian Kjaer, to inject some tough love early on the first day of the conference. In perhaps the most talked about speech of the event, Birol agreed with Clover that onshore wind, at least, will be “fully competitive” with gas soon. He however warned delegates that “subsidies to fossil fuels are public enemy number one to sustainable energy development”.
In 2011, fossil fuel subsidies totaled more than half a trillion US dollars, he reminded delegates, citing the findings published in the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2012. While the $523bn figure is one referred to within the pages of Renewable Energy Focus and in our blogs since they were published by the IEA last November (and reiterated in the January/February issue in both the editorial leader, page 1, and our in-depth interview with EWEA's outgoing CEO Christian Kjaer on page 12), the delegates and much of the media there seem stunned to hear the news – especially when Birol provided them with the comparatively low $88bn in subsidies received by renewables in 2011. “Fossil fuel subsidies do not make sense,” Birol stressed. They keep fossil fuels artificially cheap and unless they are phased out, we will not reach our climate targets. “I hope governments pay attention to this,” he said.
“One of the biggest challenges wind energy faces today is the lack of predictability of government policies, and not the lack of predictability of wind power,” he later went on. “If governments would be predictable we would win this game.”
Kjaer, in his last outing as CEO at an EWEA conference, was similarly scathing of policy makers for creating instability in the market. He pointed out that the 2012 figures “reflect orders made before the wave of political uncertainty that has swept across Europe since 2011, which is having a hugely negative impact on the wind energy sector”. This instability, he suggested, will be far more apparent in 2013 and 2014 installation levels.
And while the European Parliament may have just called for a 2030 renewable energy target to be set (see page 9), overall the EU is almost 2GW (1.7%) under its National Renewable Energy Action Plan forecasts, EWEA's statistics reveal. Eighteen Member States are falling behind, including Slovakia, Greece, Czech Republic, Hungary, France and Portugal.
“The wind industry can be a driver for growth, for jobs and exports but not if government policies drive away investors,” warned outgoing EWEA president, Arthouros Zervos – during the event, Zervous was awarded the annual Poul La Cour prize for outstanding contribution to wind energy. Like Birol and Kjaer, he was critical of the spate of “sudden or retroactive changes to support schemes” across Europe. The year ahead “will be tough”, he warned. “The wind industry is suffering serious job losses, and will suffer more difficulties this year.”
Others – including Irish Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte – added that problems associated with complex planning and permitting procedures and of gaining public acceptance to projects still remain key obstacles to development too. “Project developers must build in and communicate community gain considerations,” Rabbitte stressed. He added: “I know your industry would like certainty about the landscape post-2020, to allow you make investment decisions now. Realistically, however, it is too early to expect a final decision.” Even so, “For the period beyond 2020, renewable energy will continue to play a significant role and we can plan for it and invest in it on a “no regrets” basis”.
Stressing the falling costs of renewable energy technologies, Adnan Amin, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) agreed, saying: “The world faces a historic choice.” Global energy demand is predicted to rise by a third by 2035, according to the IEA. “To meet this demand, governments are facing investment and infrastructure decisions on a scale that will define the development of generations to come.” He noted the IEA suggests Europe may import as much as 80% of its gas demand by 2035 if it fails to act, exposing economies to “substantial supply insecurity and price volatility”.
He added: “The cruel truth about this is that it is the economies, and the people who can least afford it who end up paying the cost.” The realistic prospect of indigenous renewable resources capable of producing secure and sustainable energy is “technically possible and economically feasible today”, supplying the 1.3bn people lacking electricity, he continued. “In the face of global economic uncertainty, investment in a new industry generating new employment and income, while creating the new economic infrastructure of the 21st century has become increasingly an idea whose time has come.”
The renewable energy revolution is happening, and is here to stay, he said. “Over 120 countries have set renewable energy targets, five million people already work in the sector, and annual investment in renewables is predicted to range between US$300 billion and US$1 trillion by 2020.”
Part 2 out soon...
The Interview: Christian Kjaer
UK Met Office Wind Review 2012 shows Europe's windiest locations
Andrew Garrad new President of the EWEA
Proposed EU sea planning law will “boost investor certainty”
About: Gail Rajgor is Managing Editor of Renewable Energy Focus