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Renewing the Globe? Europe Leads the Way in Energy Alternatives
(Released April 2012)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Wind, Solar, and More


Wind power is one of the most successful, and fastest growing, forms of renewable energy in Europe—and around the world. In 2011, Europe spent 12.6 billion Euros on wind power; by the end of that year the EU had 93,957 Megawatts (MW) of wind installed, amounting to 10.5% of the EU’s energy capacity (Wilkes et al). Indeed, over the last 17 years installations of wind power have had “an annual average market growth of 15.6%” and total installed wind power now represents 6.3% of Europe’s electricity consumption (Wilkes et al).

Germany and Spain lead Europe in wind energy. Onshore wind potential is greatest in north-western Europe, while great offshore potential exists “in the North Sea, the Baltic Seas and the Atlantic Ocean” (Europe’s Onshore and Offshore). Offshore wind is the latest frontier and the future of wind power, dominated by Europe, with the market “expected to grow at more than 40% a year for the next five years” (Singh). This has come at a period of greatly increased wind power globally, as the rest of the world begins to catch Europe. While in 2004, Europe had nearly five times the installed wind power capacity as the United States and nearly fifty times as much as China, by 2010, both the United States and China had already reached half the capacity of Europe, according to Global Wind Energy numbers (GWEC). Europe has led the way, pioneering better technology and a mass market that contributed to wind power booms around the world.

German wind farm
Cars and trucks on a highway drive past a windpark where wind turbines spin to produce electricity near Proesitz, Germany
Wind may not continue to dominate growth in Europe’s renewable sector. In 2010 Europe installed more solar “capacity than any other renewable electricity source” (Photovoltaic Barometer). By the end of the year, Europe possessed over 80% of world installed photovoltaic capacity, with per capita capacity of 58.5 watts peak (Wp) “compared to 32.6 Wp in 2009” (Photovoltaic Barometer). Germany has been the continental leader, with over 17 gigawatts peak (GWp) of installed solar at the end of 2010; it is aiming for “52 to 70 GWp of new capacity by 2020… enough to meet 10% of the country’s electricity needs” (Photovoltaic Barometer). With prices plummeting, photovoltaic power may soon cost no more than other energy sources. Indeed, Europe may very well overshoot their targets for solar capacity over the coming years and decades.

Still, photovoltaics may not prove to be the last word in solar energy. Large power plants employing concentrated solar power may also be successful, particularly since photovoltaic generation “currently costs up to twice as much” (Mediterranean Solar Plan). In addition, concentrated solar plants provide baseline power; that is, they don’t suffer the intermittency of photovoltaic. Europe’s first commercial solar power station, in Seville, Spain, should be completed in 2013 and power some 180,000 homes (Murti). An even brighter future may come from power plants in northern Africa, which may eventually send large amounts of solar energy to the heart of Europe.

Another important renewable energy source is biomass, energy derived from waste, algae, and forest residues (Energy Roadmap), currently at 2.4% of Europe’s electricity production (European Biomass). Indeed, biomass and waste accounted for 67.7 % of Europe’s renewable energy in 2009 (European Commission, Eurostat); in addition, biomass is also a major heating source. While much of the media neglects the contribution of biomass, it’s also true that solar and wind energy are growing at a much faster rate and should supply an increasing percentage of power in Europe’s future (Zervos). Hydropower, which has supplied meaningful power the longest, accounted for 19% of Europe’s renewable energy in 2009 (European Commission, Eurostat). Yet, because dams alter ecological balance, hydropower is controversial; its use has leveled off and is expected to grow an insignificant amount.

Despite its commitment, Europe has not always shown the innovation necessary to accelerate the push to renewable energy. Perhaps the strong governmental support for renewable energy in Europe has made innovation less urgent? In 2009, the International Energy Agency warned of a lack of European investment in new green technologies (Burgermeister), while the European Commission recently called for investment “in new renewable technologies, such as ocean energy and concentrated solar power and 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels” (Energy Roadmap). However, the same European Commission study shows that it is possible to eliminate CO2 emissions (Energy Roadmap). Indeed, in the coming decades Europe will need to invest greatly in its energy system, and the cost will be roughly similar for renewable or fossil fuels infrastructure. Notably, the “cumulative grid investment costs alone could be 1.5 to 2.2 trillion Euros between 2011 and 2050, with the higher range reflecting greater investment in support of renewable energy” (Energy Roadmap). The transition to renewables is likely to continue, although perhaps slowly and intermittently due to Europe’s financial troubles.

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