However, a big increase in wind capacity in Germany, Spain and Denmark as well as in the UK, France, Italy and Portugal has boosted electricity from renewable sources to record levels, compensating for droughts that have hit Europe’s hydroelectric power production, and paving the way for the EU to come within a whisker of reaching its electricity sector target of 21% by 2010.
A record 7,500 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity was built in Europe in 2006. Wind energy now supplies 3.3% of the EU’s total gross electricity consumption. It is estimated that the wind power capacity will increase from today’s 50,000 MW, producing 100THW of energy, to 180 GW, producing 500 TWH of electricity by 2020. Wind power could, some studies say, supply 16% of the EU’s total electricity consumption by 2020.
In 2005, 16.3% of renewable electricity came from wind, 15.8% came from biomass, 1.2% from geothermal and 0.3% from solar power; the majority, 66.4%, came from the EU’s expanding hydroelectric power sector.
Nine countries are on track to meet their national renewable electricity targets of 21% for 2010: Denmark, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Luxemburg, Spain, Sweden and The Netherlands.
Germany has already overshot the EU target and 14 per cent of its gross electricity consumption is expected to come from renewable energy by the end of 2007. In 2000 the share was 6.3%.
About 22 billion kWh of electricity was produced by wind power in the first half of 2007 in Germany with 21,283 MW of installed capacity. The country is also the third biggest generator of electricity from biomass behind Finland and Sweden and ahead of Spain, the UK and Denmark.
New legislation that set a feed-in tariff guaranteeing a fixed price to suppliers has played a key role in increasing the amount of electricity coming from renewable sources in Germany, analysts say.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was hopeful that Germany could extend its use of renewable energy to 30% by 2020.
Some European countries are set to miss all the EU renewable energy targets, including Belgium, the UK, Italy and Greece.
UK government officials estimated that the UK can hope at best to have 9% of its energy by 2020 from renewable sources; it currently has 2% from renewable sources.
Stephanie Schlegel from the Institute for International and European Environmental Policy in Berlin said that the key to meeting the renewable energy targets as well as to cutting GHG emission cuts was reducing the overall consumption of energy in the EU.
However, electricity consumption in the EU member states has continued to grow in spite of energy saving policies. Total electricity consumption in the residential sector for the EU grew by 10.8 per cent between 1999 and 2004 from TWH in 1999 to 765 TWH in 2004. The electricity in the industrial sector grew by 9.5 % between 1999 and 2004.
Also, Schlegel said that some of the EU renewable targets might not help cut GHG emissions: in particular the environmental benefits of the EU target on biofuels is hotly debated among experts.
Looking ahead, she said that the EU could only meet its target of 20% energy from renewable sources by 2020 if the next round of talks between the EU member states is successful.
The European Commission is opening up negotiations with member states this autumn to set specific targets for each country and for each renewable energy sector; national plans are to be finalized by December 2007.
"Setting EU wide targets is a good policy instrument for increasing renewable energy use, but the negotiations on which country has to meet which specific target are bound to be difficult this autumn, and it is only when each country has clear targets that the progress can really be measured," Schlegel told RenewableEnergyAccess.com.
Jane Burgermeister is a freelance science writer based in Austria.