Rhein on Energy and Climate

At its “historic” March 2007 meeting, the European Council has solemnly proclaimed the European Union’s firm intention to cover 20 percent of its primary energy consumption from renewable sources. Nine months later, the Commission has submitted a draft directive for implementing this target by appropriate national action plans.

Reaching the 20 percent target by 2020 seems next to impossible.
In 1997, the share of renewables in the EU 15 was 5 percent. It has risen to 6.5 percent in 2005 and to 8.0 percent in 2007. It will have to more than double in the coming 12 years, an extremely ambitious goal.

Only three small member states (Latvia, Sweden and Finland) have managed to cover more than 20 percent of their energy demand from renewables, essentially by drawing on their hydro-power and forest biomass resources.

The six biggest member states – Germany, France, UK, Italy, Spain and Poland – generate no more than an average 6 percent of their total energy requirements from renewables,

Why is it unlikely for the EU to achieve its self-imposed target?

  1. For heating and cooling of buildings, which accounts for about 40 percent of total energy demand, it is next to impossible to use renewable energy.
    • There are severe limits to the use of more biofuels because of inadequate supply of waste wood and high transport.
    • Solar electricity, thermal or photovoltaic, will be able to cover no more than a trifle.
    • Wind power is next to inapplicable.
    • The only effective technology for heating and cooling buildings is thermal pumps, provided the electricity comes from renewable sources.

    Under optimistic assumptions, it might be possible to cover five percent of the 2020 heating and cooling requirements from renewable sources.

  2. It is equally impossible to widely use renewable energy in the transport sector, which accounts for some 25 percent of total EU energy consumption. The Commission has proposed a mandatory biofuel target of 10 percent of all energy used in transport in 2020. Even it that target were reached, the transport sector would effectively only cover five percent of its energy requirements from biofuels, as it takes 1 litre of mineral fuel to produce 2 litres of biofuel.
  3. All hopes are therefore pinned on generating renewable electricity, which accounts for another 25 percent of EU energy demand. The potential for renewable electricity generation is very unevenly distributed across the Union. Only a few regions – Galicia, Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands, northern Germany and Portugal – are able to generate more than 50 percent from renewable, essentially wind sources. The Union’s potential for hydro power is fully exploited, leaving aside marginal sites for small hydro-power. The same goes for biofuels. Solar power will play no more than a marginal role, whatever the present boom of photovoltaics. So will wave power.

Hopefully, and provided all member countries redouble their efforts, the EU might be able to cover 30 percent of its electricity from all available renewable energies, mostly hydro, biomass and wind.

On the basis of these rough estimates, the EU would not be able to cover more than 12 percent at most of its 2020 energy demand.

We should draw five conclusions from this analysis:

  • The EU Commission has to demonstrate how to achieve the triple target for 2020 (- 20% GHG emissions, + 20% energy efficiency, 20% share of renewables in total energy demand).
  • The share of renewable energy, however desirable, is not of crucial importance for 2020. What matters is the reduction of C02 emissions. Whether that reduction takes place through higher energy efficiency, more use of nuclear energy or the sequestration of carbon dioxide in coal-fuelled power stations is of secondary importance.
  • The Commission should focus on how to switch to low-carbon – or preferably no-carbon – technologies, instead of losing precious time on complicated “guarantee of origin regimes” that would allow Swedish wind electricity to be counted as a renewable source of energy in Poland.
  • It is not up to bureaucrats to intervene with the technologies used for reducing C02 emissions. They should propose the political objectives and the most effective legislative means for reaching them. The Commission has convinced everybody that “emission caps”, coupled with a trading facility for emission allowances, are the most effective means in at least two key sectors: electricity and transport. It should therefore concentrate on getting member states to agree to the rather draconian cuts – 2.5 percent per year – it has proposed for electricity generation and the 120 g C02 emission per km for automobiles. It is far from having succeeded.
  • It has not paid enough attention to the heating and cooling of buildings, which is the biggest chunk of EU energy consumption. Without extremely strict thermal insulation standards for new and old buildings and a massive injection of budget and loan funds from regional funds and the EIB into the retrofitting of buildings, the EU is likely to miss its strategic 20 percent C02 reduction target for 2020, let alone a more ambitious one of 30 percent, which the Union has promised to achieve in case USA, Canada, Japan and other main emitters took similar commitments.

The progress of the legislative work on the Commission proposals of January 23, 2008 gives rise to serious concern. At its forthcoming meeting June 19-20, the European Council has to give appropriate instructions to the ministers of the environment and energy to accelerate their work in view of finalising the approval by the end of the year.

Author :


  1. I note that you say Solar energy will provide no more than a trifle, this need not be the case if we can build solar energy plants in the sahara.

    You also mention that 1 litre of fuel produces 2 litres of biofuel. You omit to mention that the production of biofuel causes food shortages, and still has net CO2 emission. Rather than use prime agricultural land to sustain the use of the internal combustion engine, which will still be a polluter, let’s go solar electric from utilising the otherwise redundant desert. 2% of the Sahara could provide Europes current electricity needs at a cost similar to coal fired stations with zero emmisions. Arable land is too precious to waste on motor fuel, how many more lives must be destroyed by the car?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Cristopher,
    I aappreciate your comments.
    Here my reply.
    1. Solar energy from the Sahara is an old story. But it will not be available in the volumes needed by 2020. Less than 2 GW of solar energy are presently installed or planned around theMediterrranean. That is peanuts, and it will take much longer than 10 years to install really big capacities. There are still a lot lot technical and political problems to overcome.
    2. I am no fan at all of biofuels. That is why I emphasised that you need at least 2 litres of fossil fuel to produce 1 litre of biofuel.
    Eberhard Rhein

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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