EU renewable energy policy


This article is part of our special report Wind Energy.

European leaders signed up to a binding EU-wide target to source 20% of their energy needs from renewables, including biomass, hydro, wind and solar power, by 2020. To meet this objective, they also agreed on a new directive to promote renewable energies, which set individual targets for each member state.

Renewable energies such as wind power, solar energy, hydropower and biomass can play a major role in tackling the twin challenge of energy security and global warming because they do not deplete and produce less greenhouse-gas emissions than fossil fuels. 

They are also expected to play a key role in creating new technology jobs and leading Europe out of the economic crisis.

Since the energy crises of the 1970s, several industrial nations have launched programmes to develop renewable energy solutions, but the return of low oil prices prevented renewable energies from picking up on a large commercial scale.

In 2007, renewable energies covered 13.1% of global primary energy supply and 17.9% of global electricity production (IEA, 2007). The IEA's 2006 World Energy Outlook foresees in its Alternative Policy Scenario that the share of renewables in global energy consumption will only slightly increase by 2030, at 14%. Renewables in electricity generation are expected to grow to around 25%, according to the IEA.

The European Commission published a White Paper in 1997 setting out a Community strategy for achieving a 12% share of renewables in the EU's energy mix. The decision was motivated by concerns about security of supply and environmental protection.

The 12% target was adopted in a 2001 directive on the promotion of electricity from renewable energy sources, which also included a 22.1% target for electricity for the EU-15. The legislation was an important part of the EU's measures to deliver on commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol.

Nevertheless, the targets were not binding and it became evident that they would not be met.

In January 2007, the Commission published a Renewable Energy Roadmap outlining a long-term strategy. It called for a mandatory target of a 20% share of renewable energies in the EU's energy mix by 2020. The target was endorsed by EU leaders in March 2007.

To achieve this objective, the EU adopted a new Renewables Directive in April 2009, which set individual targets for each member state.

The 'Europe 2020' strategy, presented by the Commission in March 2010, incorporated the 2020 climate goals in its flagship initiative to promote a resource-efficient Europe.

Member states' targets

A new EU directive on renewable energies, agreed in December 2008, requires each member state to increase its share of renewable energies – such as solar, wind or hydro – in the bloc's energy mix to raise the overall share from 8.5% today to 20% by 2020. A 10% share of 'green fuels' in transport is also included within the overall EU target (EURACTIV 05/12/08).

To achieve the objective, every nation in the 27-member bloc is required to increase its share of renewables by 5.5% from 2005 levels, with the remaining increase calculated on the basis of per capita gross domestic product (GDP).

Member State

Share of renewables in 2005

Share required by 2020













Czech Republic










































The Netherlands












Slovak Republic












United Kingdom



Interim targets

The directive set a series of interim targets, known as 'indicative trajectories', in order to ensure steady progress towards the 2020 targets.

  • 20% average between 2011 and 2012;
  • 30% average between 2013 and 2014;
  • 45% average between 2015 and 2016, and;
  • 65% average between 2017 and 2018. 

EU countries are free to decide their own preferred 'mix' of renewables, allowing them to take account of their different potentials. They must present national action plans (NAPs) based on the indicative trajectories to the European Commission by 30 June 2010, followed by progress reports submitted every two years. The plans will need to be defined across three sectors: electricity, heating and cooling, and transport.

The compromise agreement eventually rejected a regime whereby member states would have faced financial penalties for failing to reach interim targets towards the 2020 goal. Member states are, however, required to submit amended NAPs, setting out measures for rejoining the indicative trajectories.

Brussels reserves the right to enact infringement proceedings if states do not take 'appropriate measures' towards their targets, meaning the decision to take legal action will be at the Commission's discretion rather than based on strict criteria.

Flexibility with national support schemes

Member states will be permitted to link their national support schemes to those of other EU states, and will be allowed under certain conditions to import 'physical' renewable energy from third-country sources, such as large solar farms in North Africa. However, so-called 'virtual' imports, based on renewable energy investments in third countries, cannot be counted towards national targets.

A system of open trading in renewable energy certificates between EU member states, favoured by electricity market traders and large electricity utilities, was rejected in favour of a system whereby one member state can sell or trade excess renewables credits to another, based on statistical values.

These so-called 'statistical transfers', which can only take place if the selling member state has reached its interim renewables targets, can also be applied in cases where member states cooperate on joint projects.

Buildings and district heating

While the directive primarily focuses on promoting large-scale renewable energy installations, member states are nevertheless requested to use "minimum levels for the use of energy from renewable sources in buildings". Moreover, the text provides for the mutual recognition of certification for technicians who install renewable technologies in buildings (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU buildings legislation). 

Architects and planners are also to benefit from national 'guidance' when planning new construction projects, while local and regional administrative bodies should be encouraged to "ensure equipment and systems are installed for the use of heating, cooling and electricity from renewable sources, and for district heating and
cooling when planning, designing, building and refurbishing industrial or residential areas". In particular, they should be urged to consider heating and cooling from renewables when planning city infrastructures.

Infrastructure and grid access

Many smaller producers of renewable energy argue that a lack of transparency and blocked access to energy grids are preventing them from competing on the market (EURACTIV 06/07/07).

The text seeks to address the problem by requesting member states to ensure that transmission and distribution system operators provide "either priority access or guaranteed access to the grid system of electricity produced from renewable energy sources".

At an EU summit in February 2011, EU leaders acknowledged that further green growth would require a high-tech 'smart' power grid – estimated to cost about €200 billion – to carry wind power from the north and solar power from the Mediterranean to central cities such as Paris and Prague (EURACTIV 08/02/11). This would become necessary to make up for the natural variation inherent in sources of energy like wind and solar.

A senior EU official has admitted that the 20% target will be challenging to meet, considering that Europe as a whole was only sourcing 6.4% of its overall energy needs from renewables in 2007. Moreover, the official pointed out that the figure was largely made of hydropower, an energy source that has limited additional potential due to geographical constraints.

"We are supportive of a general increase in the use of renewable energy", said Ernest-Antoine Seillière, president of BusinessEurope, the EU employers' organisation. "But meeting this binding target must not threaten an energy supply at competitive prices. Implementation must leave all other energy options open, in particular the use of nuclear energy."

The European electricity industry association, Eurelectric, is much more sceptical regarding targets. "The EU should avoid command-and-control measures such as binding energy targets or requirements to use only certain technologies," it said, questioning the "wisdom and the realism of the proposed dramatic compulsory increase in the share of RES (renewables) in the energy mix by 2020".

The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), an industry group, voiced concerns regarding implementation, saying that "setting an ambitious target does not automatically deliver the results". "We need to go ahead at full speed in implementing the legislative framework, which will guarantee that renewable energy in all its sectors and potentials will be exploited," said EREC President Arthouros Zervos.

Commenting on the European Commission's review of the renewables directive, published in January 2011, Zervos said it "provides a clear picture of both the promising progress of renewables and the economic challenges, but is disappointing when it comes to new, innovative ideas regarding financing of renewables".

"It is the fifth consecutive year that renewables have accounted for more than 40% of new electricity generating installations," he continued.

"Given at the same time the continuous slow growth of renewable heat at EU and national level, more support is needed in the heat sector, for example to district heating or co-generation," he said, adding: "For investment in renewable energy to double, investors need stable European and national frameworks."

report produced in January 2007 by Greenpeace and EREC predicts that renewable energy can deliver half of the world's primary energy needs by 2050, if the right policies are taken.

In comments released ahead of an EU energy summit in February 2011, Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes, energy spokesman for the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament said: "National support schemes for renewable energy have proved overwhelmingly successful in promoting the uptake of renewables. We welcome that the Commission has acknowledged this and resisted the lobby by big energy utilities to undermine these national schemes. The message is simple: if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

"National support schemes, combined with the cooperation mechanisms provided for in the EU renewables legislation, are the best way to promote an increased share of renewables and hopefully this approach will be endorsed at this week's energy summit."

Please also see EURACTIV's related coverage of the proposal and further stakeholder reactions.

  • Nov. 1997: Commission publishes White Paper setting out a Community Strategy and Action Plan for renewable energy.
  • Sept. 2001: EU adopts Directive on the Promotion of Electricity from Renewable Energy Sources.
  • May 2003: EU adopts directive on the promotion of the use of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport.
  • 10 Jan. 2007: Commission presents Renewable Energy Roadmap as part of its energy and climate change package. 
  • March 2007: EU summit endorses a binding target to source 20% of the bloc's energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.
  • 23 Jan. 2008: Commission presents a proposal for a new renewables directive.
  • 9 Dec.2008: Political agreement on the Renewables Directive (EURACTIV 09/12/08).
  • 11-12 Dec. 2008: EU summit agrees final version of the Renewables Directive.
  • 30 June 2009: Commission issues template for National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) (EURACTIV 01/07/09).
  • 30 June 2010: Deadline for EU states to present National Renewable Energy Action Plans.
  • 31 Jan. 2011: Commission progress report calls for doubling capital investments to achieve renewables target (EURACTIV 31/01/11)
  • 2020: Target date for EU objective of sourcing 20% of energy from renewable sources.

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