Renewable energy: key to Europe’s low-carbon future

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Article Published 15 Jun 2016 Last modified 06 Dec 2016, 03:20 PM
The future looks bright for renewable energy sources which are playing an increasingly important role as Europe tries to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. We talked about the opportunities and challenges ahead for clean energy with Mihai Tomescu, energy expert at the European Environment Agency.
Photo Pawel Kazmierczyk

Photo Pawel Kazmierczyk

Do you think the European Union will achieve its 2020 target of meeting 20% of its final energy needs from renewables?

Based on the progress we have made so far, it is likely that the EU will meet that target. The EU’s consumption of renewable energy continued to grow year on year, reaching 16% of final energy consumption in 2014. This share is higher than the interim trajectory for Europe from the Renewable Energy Directive, so we are well on track today. At national level the picture is slightly more mixed, but a large majority of Member States are making good progress.

The increased consumption of renewable energy sources has been beneficial in many areas. The progress towards EU and national targets means that renewables are effectively displacing fossil fuels and supporting a structural shift towards clean energy. These promising developments can prepare European companies for entering new global energy sectors where significant growth is expected to occur. We also observe an increasing interest and support for clean energy sources in the wider public — a factor that could help accelerate the current energy transition. Despite these positive developments, we still have a lot of work ahead to make the energy transition happen.

Could the EU ever fully rely on renewable energy or would fossil fuels always have a role to play?

With the Paris Agreement, the world agreed to move towards a low-carbon future. The European Union had already set ambitious climate targets and to achieve our long-term decarbonisation objectives, renewables must meet at least 55 % to 75 % of our energy needs by 2050. Clearly, this is challenging, but I think it is feasible.  

Renewables are key to long-term climate mitigation efforts and will play an increasing role in improving the EU’s overall energy security. Yet, our need for fossil fuels will likely continue for some time, even though our dependence on them has started to diminish. In addition to geopolitical risks, fossil fuels come with disproportionate external costs to society in the form of health and environmental damages.

While sustained low oil prices could have an impact on the cost-competitiveness of renewables, the long-term outlook for renewables is bright. Renewable energy technologies have become increasingly cost competitive. In many places renewables are already competing successfully with fossil fuel technologies at market prices. Besides, if energy prices were to internalise better the environmental impacts associated with energy generation and use, such as emissions to air, climate and water, renewables would clearly out-compete conventional technologies.

Is Europe playing a leading role in developing clean energy sources?

As the recent EEA report on the use of renewables in Europe shows, the EU has made significant contributions to the development of renewable energy technologies globally. During the period 2005–2012, Europe recorded the highest share in total new global investments in renewable energy sources, being surpassed by China only since 2013. In 2014, the EU-28 had the largest installed and connected solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in the world – about three times as much as China – and the largest wind power capacity globally. However, the pace of investment in Europe has slowed down lately, while it is picking up in other parts of the world.

With regard to employment in the renewable energy sector, the EU is one of the key global players. In 2014, it had the second highest level of employment in the labour force in the area, behind Brazil. The largest employers in the EU renewables sector are the wind, solar PV and solid biomass industries. We have seen job losses in the solar PV and wind industries as competition from China continues to grow. Despite this, the share of renewable energy related jobs in the EU-28 workforce remain, to-date, larger than in China.

What are the challenges ahead?

First, the global landscape for renewables is changing rapidly. If Europe wants retain its first-mover advantage, it has to keep up its level of commitment. The fact that research and development funding in renewables has lately been stagnating hints at a potential to lose out on the breakthrough technologies of tomorrow. In this context, the International Energy Agency recommends tripling the current R&D spending on clean-energy innovation.

Moreover, the internal EU energy market needs to be reformed to make it more efficient and capable of accommodating growing levels of intermittent renewable sources. Intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar PV and wind power feed electricity into the grid when climatic condition allow them. Under existent market rules, these energy sources are not able to get appropriate price levels and this will need to be addressed in the future. Improvements in efficiency, transmission, cross-border interconnection, energy storage and a more active role for demand side management will also be important for the energy transition.  

How does the EEA ensure more effective use of renewable energy?

We provide regular assessments on the progress towards EU targets, supporting decision makers in Europe. Our reports also offer a state of play and we act as a clearing house for member countries through our European environment information and observation network (Eionet) on an annual basis, to identify and discuss issues related to renewable energy.

Mihai Tomescu

Mihai Tomescu

Interview published in the EEA Newsletter issue 2/2016, dated June 2016

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