Wind power buffeted by ‘political uncertainty’ but still growing

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Wind power accounted for over a quarter of all power capacity installed in the European Union last year, but turbulent times lie ahead, says a new report by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

Some 11.6 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity was hooked up in 2012, a 12% increase on the previous year, bringing Europe’s total wind capacity to 105.6 GW, according to EWEA’s annual 2012 statistics, published yesterday (7 February). 

The value of this investment could be as high as €17.2 billion, but the wind association sounded a warning about future prospects.

“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,” said Christian Kjær, EWEA’s outgoing chief executive.

“We expect this instability to be far more apparent in 2013 and 2014 installation levels.”

Although wind accounted for 26% of new power builds in the EU, solar photovoltaic power made up 30% and gas 24% of the total.

In what may be a reflection of the strength of ‘NIMBY’ (‘not in my backyard’) arguments across the continent, offshore wind saw record growth in 2012, and the trend is predicted to continue to 2014. But onshore still represented 90% of all last year’s new installations.

Forecasting a “tough” year ahead, EWEA President Arthouros Zervos told the association’s conference in Vienna that sudden or retroactive changes to support schemes for wind energy were damaging the industry.

“The wind industry is suffering serious job losses, and will suffer more difficulties this year,” he said, adding that binding renewable targets for 2030 – EWEA favours a figure of 45% – would restore investor confidence.

Germany, the wind king

Germany remains the continent’s undisputed wind leader, the report shows, accounting for 21% of all new wind installations and 22% of existing capacity. Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy follow close behind.

But “it is expected that a number of large markets, such as Italy and Spain, and certain previously fast growing emerging markets, such as Bulgaria, may slow down significantly over the coming years,” the report says.

The budding clean energy industry is also facing a skills shortage of around 5,500 qualified staff per year.

“There is a real risk of a shortage of suitably skilled workers,” said Andrew Garrad, the chairman of GL Garrad Hassan, a renewable energy consultancy, singling out a particular shortfall of engineers in operations and maintenance.

Wind energy now powers 7% of Europe's electricity demand – up from 6.3% at the end of 2011 – and 15 member states now have more than 1GW of installed power.

Poland and Romania breeze their wind commitments

Newer states such as Poland and Romania both enjoyed record years, each contributing around 8% to the EU’s total spread. 

“Wind energy in Central and Eastern Europe, including Turkey, will substantially reduce the fossil fuel dependency of the power sectors,” Kjær said.

However, the continent is now almost 2GW behind its National Renewable Energy Action Plan forecasts, with 18 member states lagging – notably the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Portugal and Slovakia.  

Europe’s long-term energy trend still leans in a low-carbon direction. Since 2000, 27.6% of all newly installed capacity has been wind power, 51.2% renewables, and 91.2% renewables and gas combined.

Just 7% of Europe’s new installations last year were coal-fired power plants. Over 69% were renewable.  

The EU has set itself a legally binding goal for 2020 of reducing its CO2 emissions by 20% and increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix by the same amount, both measured against 1990 levels.

A target of a 20% increase in energy efficiency has also been set but it is not legally enforceable. A low carbon roadmap in March 2011 outlined a plan for moving to a decarbonised economy by 2050.

This built on a long-term target first-endorsed by EU leaders in October 2009 for a long-term target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This is in line with the recommendations of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for preventing catastrophic changes to the Earth's climate.

  • Spring 2013: EU to publish Green Paper on 2030 targets
  • By end of 2013: EU to publish communication on 2030 targets
  • 2020: Deadline for renewable energy to make up 20% of the EU’s energy mix

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