As Europe attempts to accelerate its progress to carbon neutrality, what role will renewables play?
In order to achieve a successful transition to carbon neutrality, Europe will need to balance its energy portfolio effectively between fossil fuels, and green energy, with an emphasis on the latter. The recent roadmap 2050 report stated that 'it is not only technically feasible, but also economically affordable to establish a decarbonised European power sector – one in which the share of renewable energy sources ranges from 40% to 80% with the rest equally split between Carbon Capture and Storage and other sources’. Europe, and in particular the European Union has placed a great emphasis on the development and integration of renewable energy sources into the power sector, in order to achieve their ambitious decarbonisation targets.
As stated above, a key part of managing the energy portfolio of Europe is green energy. The European Union has established a Renewable Energy Directive. This directive sets out a target for the EU for the year 2030. It aims to ensure that the EU will fulfil at a minimum 32% of its total energy needs with renewable energy by this date. However, a recent EU Commission impact assessment shows a different target, it states that renewables will need to encompass 38-40% of the total energy share by 2030 to allow for a more gradual transition to a climate neutral EU economy by the year 2050.
The current energy mix for Europe is still heavily weighted towards fossil fuels, figures from a 2019 study show that solid fossil fuels make up 12.6%, petroleum products make up 36.4% and natural gas accounts for 22.4%. This is a total of 71.4% of the overall energy mix. This percentage figure is the proportion of the energy mix that needs to be fulfilled by renewables if Europe is to reach its ambitious future targets. Many plans and proposals set forth by the EU have put renewables at roughly 70%, in order to achieve carbon neutral status across the bloc by 2050. However, in the current (2019) energy mix, renewable energy only accounts for 15.3%.
Policy change in the EU is heavily geared towards the implementation of renewables across the bloc. The most recent EU legislation to impact on the implementation of renewables into electricity markets is the Clean Energy for all Europeans Package, which was adopted in 2019. The Clean Energy Package consists of eight legislative acts, which include electricity market design and renewable energy targets. The acts that deal with these topics are referred to as
· ‘The Energy Directive’ and,
· ‘The Renewables Directive.’
The directives implemented in the Clean Energy Package aim to facilitate a transition in the EU towards cleaner energy. This will help in achieving a proposed 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emission levels by 2030, compared to 1990. These targets are ambitious as mentioned, however, they have resulted in significant change. Several years ago, Europe as a whole was generating over twice as much of its electricity supply from coal than it did from solar and wind. Now there has been a clear change in energy generation and use, resulting in the increased decarbonisation of Europe’s electricity supply.
Europe’s generation capacity for renewables is steadily on the rise. In the first half of 2020, and for the first time, Europe generated more electricity from renewable sources than it did from fossil fuels. In the first six months of 2020, 40% of the electricity across the 27 member states of the EU was generated through wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy. During this same timeframe fossil fuels generated just 34% of the electricity. To contrast these figures and show the high levels of increasing capacity, we can take a look at the United States’ generation figures for 2020. During this timeframe, renewables only generated 18% of the electricity, with fossil fuels accounting for a huge 62% of electricity generation. However, there is a key difference between generation and consumption, generation of too much renewable energy without sufficient storage systems, can mean this energy is wasted instead of consumed.
The major primary renewable sources currently used in Europe are
Bioenergy is a form of renewable energy generated when we burn biomass fuel. Biomass fuels come from organic material such as harvest residues, purpose-grown crops and organic waste from our homes, businesses and farms. There is debate on whether biomass fuel is in fact a form of renewable energy. It is argued that because plants and organic matter derive their energy from photosynthesis, i.e. the sun, that it is a form of renewable energy. However, the use of biomass on a large scale could lead to increased deforestation, as large amounts of organic matter are needed. Furthermore, it is not an entirely clean energy, as when burned, biofuel does still release greenhouse gases, albeit on a much smaller scale than traditional fossil fuels such as coal. The debate is out on whether biomass is in fact renewable, however, it is a low carbon fuel and could aid greatly in reaching carbon neutrality in Europe by its targeted dates.
Each European country will have to incorporate renewables in a different way to achieve carbon neutrality. A key point when incorporating renewables is playing to your climate’s strengths, for example Ireland and the UK focus on wind energy and Spain has focused on solar energy.
The performance of countries across Europe in implementing renewables is highly varied, some have exceeded targets whilst others have failed to meet their targets. Many countries have generated large amounts of renewable energy, including Ireland, however, as explained above, consumption differs to generation. Front runners in consumption of renewable energy include mainly Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, Iceland and Norway. Their targets ranged from 50% to 65% and all three exceeded their set targets in 2020.
Balancing the energy portfolio of Europe is a key step in ensuring that it’s emissions targets are reached in an efficient manner, whilst also making certain that future targets will also be reached.