EU poised to hit RE target thanks to solar and wind, EEA reports

The European Union (EU) is on course to hit its target of producing one-fifth of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, says the European Environment Agency (EEA), with solar and wind power playing a pivotal role in driving down carbon emissions.

Despite the EEA’s bullishness, the agency did express concern that some of the EU’s larger nations – such as the U.K. and the Netherlands, are lagging behind, and there have been doubts raised about the long-term sustainability of biomass and biofuel energy.

The EEA report – which is used by EU policymakers when assessing policy – heaped praise on how solar and wind power had become far cheaper sources of energy over the past five years, playing a leading role in helping cut the use of fossil fuels.

Indeed, the EEA said that without clean energy, 13% more coal would have been burnt in 2013 than was actually consumed, while natural gas use fell 7% over the same period. With Europe’s gas reserves dwindling and tensions between gas giant Russia at an all-time high, such news will come as a relief to many European leaders.

However, amid the shining lights of renewable adoption, many leading European countries still perform relatively badly. The U.K., the Netherlands, Malta and Luxembourg all derived less than 5% of their energy from green sources in 2013.

The EEA expects that the U.K.’s robust onshore wind sector, its growing offshore wind industry and its evolving solar landscape will ensure that the country does, in fact, hit the target of 20% renewable energy generation by 2020.

For the Netherlands, the recent amendment of the Stimulation of Sustainable Energy Production (SDE+) is set to bolster the country’s growing solar sector, which added 424 MW of PV capacity in 2014 and is expected to build upon that in 2015. Offshore wind is also expected to play a larger role in the country’s clean energy landscape. Nevertheless, a recent report from the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency estimates that the country will miss the 2020 target, reaching a 12% share of renewables by 2020.

At the opposite extreme, a handful of European nations are already performing over-and-above the 20% threshold, with Austria, Finland, Sweden and Latvia each generating more than one-third of their energy needs via renewable sources in 2013, the EEA report finds.

Most of those aforementioned countries generate the majority of their renewable energy via biomass – a process that is sustainable and environmentally sound when generated from waste, but can lead to mass deforestation as land is cleared to make wood pellets as an alternative to burning coal.

According to environmental campaigners, vast tracts of forest are being cleared in the U.S. to make pellets for export to Europe, and the EEA report states that 60% of the EU’s renewable energy comes from biomass. As a result, there have been calls for a limit on the amount of renewable energy that can be sourced from biomass. A similar cap has already been discussed for biofuels.

Long-term, the EEA forecasts that the EU should target renewable energy penetration levels of between 55% to 75% by 2050 if it hopes to play its part in keeping C02 levels below the "safe" level by that date.