EU support for renewable energies has mainly focused on renewable electricity, but many countries have also implemented financial support schemes to encourage the uptake of renewables in heating and cooling.
For renewable electricity, support schemes can generally be divided into:
Price-based instruments that pay a fixed price for renewable energy (e.g. feed-in tariffs), and;
quantity-based instruments that set compulsory amounts of renewable electricity to be produced (e.g. renewable portfolio standards).
Feed-in tariffs (FiTs) are regarded by many as the most successful means of supporting the uptake of renewables. Generally, they oblige grid operators to guarantee priority grid access to renewable energy, and oblige them to buy at government-fixed prices from generators that feed renewable energy onto the grid.
FiT schemes are designed to make sure that renewable energy can compete with conventional energy sources. They are set at a level required to guarantee the security of long-term investment in renewable energy, encouraging long-term contracts that are usually of 10-20 years' duration.
Purchase prices vary according to the type of technology and the amount of energy generated by the producer. Investors are also guaranteed a reasonable rate of return on developing more expensive technologies, such as solar photovoltaics. The schemes also offer an incentive to produce energy more efficiently.
Germany sets the standard
Germany paved the way for feed-in tariffs in Europe with its 1990 electricity feed-in law, which guaranteed free access to the grid for renewable energy for the first time.
The amount of support was originally determined as a percentage of the average price paid by final customers. This meant that solar and wind electricity, for example, got 90% of the retail price, while rates for biomass and hydro ranged from 65% to 80%.
The preferential rates stimulated market development of wind energy in particular, but they were less successful in boosting technologies that were more costly at the time, like solar photovoltaics (PV).
The feed-in law was revamped with the 2000 Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), which established the feed-in tariff model that was later taken up as a benchmark by many countries. Instead of percentages of end-user tariffs, the new rates were fixed for 20 years and vary depending on the energy source.
The law was subsequently amended to reflect changes in the market. PV rates, for example, were improved in late 2003, leading to a solar boom in 2004.
The German strategy has produced the world's largest solar market in terms of installed capacity. For wind, it came second only to the US in 2009, with almost 26 gigawatts installed by the end of last year (EURACTIV 04/02/10).
Over 40 countries have since adopted feed-in tariff policies. They have become the primary support mechanism for renewable energy in Europe, and have been used by countries like France, Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic.
However, not all feed-in tariff schemes have been equally successful, as demonstrated by the crash of the Spanish solar market in 2008. Very favourable feed-in tariffs in Spain in 2007 led to a surge in installed capacity, forcing the government to cancel the subsidies.
The market overheated as companies rushed to install as many solar panels as possible before the end of the scheme, driving prices down. The government then revamped the policy in 2009, reducing tariffs and introducing caps on the construction of new capacity.
One of the latest developments is in the UK, which has offered a feed-in tariff for small-scale clean electricity from April 2010.
The government's 'clean energy cashback' scheme will pay households and communities that install small-scale renewable electricity technologies like photovoltaic solar panels or wind turbines of up to five megawatts for the electricity they generate – even if they use it themselves. They will receive further payments for any electricity they feed into the grid.
The British system complements the country's green certificate scheme, which remains the main support mechanism for large-scale renewable production in the UK.
Renewable portfolio standards are the most common quantity-based support scheme. They oblige electricity suppliers to produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.
Meeting the quota obligation is usually measured in terms of tradable green certificates, each of which represents one megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable electricity generated. Utilities can then either produce their share themselves or buy the corresponding amount of certificates on the market.
The idea is that the certificate price covers the difference between the cost of producing renewable energy and the market price for that energy.
A handful of EU member states have chosen quota obligations as their main support mechanism for renewables, for example the Renewables Obligation (RO) in the UK.
Fiscal incentives such as tax exemptions and reductions can also be used to make investment in renewable energy more attractive. Renewable electricity producers can be exempted from paying carbon taxes, for example.
It is rare to see countries rely entirely on tax incentives to encourage the use of renewables, but they are often used to complement other measures.
Finland, for example, has successfully used a combination of investment grants and tax rebates to develop solid biomass. This strategy has been less effective for wind, and the country is now mulling the introduction of a feed-in tariff scheme for wind and biogas.
Tendering is a technology-specific system whereby the government issues a call for tender to companies interested in supplying renewable electricity at a fixed price. The most competitive bid will then receive the contract.
The extra costs that arise from producing the renewable energy are paid for by consumers.
This mechanism has historically only been used by two EU member states, France and Ireland. Denmark uses tendering to develop offshore wind projects.
Support for renewable heating
Although support schemes for renewable electricity have received the most attention, many countries have also put in place similar schemes to encourage the uptake of renewable energies like biomass, geothermal or solar thermal for heating and cooling.
Currently, most policies to support renewable heat generation are financial incentive schemes.
These include direct grants for renewable heating installations, loans at privileged rates to reduce upfront investment costs, and tax incentives to increase the competitiveness of renewable heating. Moreover, incentives linked to housing subsidies are used by some countries, for example Austria, to encourage the installation of renewable heating equipment when renovating residential buildings or constructing new ones.
Phasing out support schemes
The ultimate goal of renewable energy support schemes is to allow new technologies to compete with fossil fuels without requiring public support. For renewable electricity, this becomes the case when renewables reach 'grid parity', meaning when producing solar or wind energy costs less or the same as conventional grid power.
Grid parity is achieved more cheaply as technology improves and manufacturers benefit from economies of scale. Some experts also point out that carbon regulation contributes to parity by making fossil fuel generation more expensive.
Feed-in tariff schemes typically have an adjustment mechanism to reduce support by a certain percentage, set for each technology over time as the market develops. The reduction rate is designed to provide an incentive to make technological advances and takes into account falling costs of parts and installation, of solar panels or wind turbines, for example.
Recently, Germany and France have announced cuts in solar tariffs as a result of the rapid growth of the solar photovoltaic market (EURACTIV 21/01/10). Similar announcements are expected in other countries.
Which is the most effective system?
In quota schemes, the target for the amount of renewable energy is set by the government, but the certificate price is determined by the market. Feed-in tariffs, by contrast, do not limit quantity.
Feed-in tariffs have been proven to achieve greater renewable energy penetration in Europe - at a lower cost for consumers - than quota-based systems.
Renewable portfolio standards lack the long-term certainty that is needed to encourage investors, as support ends once the quotas have been reached. They entail more investment risk as the price of electricity certificates is more difficult to forecast.
Moreover, they tend to favour large electricity utilities, while feed-in tariffs offer opportunities for all market participants, including microgeneration by private households.
The effectiveness of tax incentives is more difficult to assess, as these are usually used in conjunction with other policy measures. They are more effective in countries with high energy taxes, such as the Nordic countries, but they are generally not sufficient as the sole means of encouraging renewable energy development.
Consumers pay premium
Support schemes typically lead to small increases in consumers' energy bills as renewable energy remains more expensive than conventional power.
Germany's Environment Ministry estimates that the national feed-in tariff scheme only added 5% to the total price of household electricity in 2008. This means that households paid an additional €2 to €6 per month for the privilege of having renewable energy.
Nevertheless, proponents of renewable energies claim that they bring considerable economic benefits to society at large, by shielding it from rising costs of importing fossil fuels and providing new green-collar jobs.