Wind energy – on the path to generating 50% of Europe's electricity
The wind energy scene is certainly never short of excitement. The sector was only in its infancy a generation ago. The scale of growth in recent years has been astonishing: Wind energy has become a vital and indispensable part of Europe's energy system. Today it makes up 17% of all electricity generated in Europe. By 2050 the European Commission wants it to be as much as 50%. But there are many hurdles to overcome on this victory march.
The success of wind energy in Europe is rooted in rapid improvements to wind turbine technology. The turbines we're building today culminate in technological innovation, streamlining, and industrial scale effects over many years.
Wind energy is an increasingly stable form of power supply with capacity factors between 30-45% onshore and over 50% offshore – matching the capacity factors of fossil power plants. Some 20 years ago, the industry installed 1 MW turbines onshore, and offshore wind was a niche technology. Since then, yields have risen significantly – and modern turbines continue to grow in size and efficiency. The latest turbine models tested by European manufacturers are 15 MW offshore wind machines. Over the years, wind turbines have also become increasingly flexible – operating at lower wind speeds and aligning more smoothly with electricity demand. Digitalization has been a big help here – not just for monitoring output but also for improving the design of turbines and extending their lifetimes.
Wind power is now one of the cheapest energy sources in Europe. Perhaps most importantly, wind power is now far more affordable than any fossil fuel equivalent. This fact makes wind energy a genuinely competitive and transformative technology – a driving force behind the energy transition.
The European Commission wants Europe to have 440 GW of wind energy by 2030, up from 200 GW today.
For example, Hornsea 2, the world's largest offshore wind farm, became fully operational in 2022. The project, located in the North Sea off the coast of England, generates electricity for around 1.3 million homes. Each turbine is 200 m tall, with the blades alone measuring 81 m. A single rotation of these turbines can generate enough electricity to power an average household for a full day. This project is very much at the cutting edge of our existing turbine technology, but it's just one example of the power that wind brings to the table – and an example of how far we have come in just a few decades.
At the same time, the industry is proactively addressing the last outstanding questions concerning circularity and recyclability – making wind the sustainable energy source of choice. As it stands, 85-90% of turbines are recyclable, and breakthroughs aim to push that percentage even higher. In other areas, the environmental advantages of wind energy are plain to see. Turbines emit zero carbon, SOx, NOx, or PM and consume hardly any water. The actual CO2 footprint of wind farms is negligible – each turbine pays off its lifecycle emissions within about 6-9 months of operation. Our aim is to guarantee recyclability across the whole turbine lifecycle – from the start of every project to the end-of-life stage and beyond.
The path to generating 50% of Europe's electricity
How big is wind in Europe today? Wind power already accounts for a sizable chunk of Europe's energy mix – meeting up to 17% of the EU's electricity demand at the end of 2022. The figure was 55% and 34% in Denmark and Ireland, respectively. For Germany, Portugal, and Spain it was 26%, 26%, and 25% respectively. As an industry, it represents 300,000 jobs across Europe
– adding €37bn to European GDP – and 248 factories employing people in some of Europe's most economically-deprived areas. Every new turbine represents €10m of economic activity on average. All told, wind is a significant component of the European economy.
Electricity from wind is produced locally – here in Europe. The war in Ukraine has been a painful reminder of Europe's overreliance on imported fossil fuels. Russia's energy blackmailing and the surge in electricity prices across Europe highlighted the crucial role of domestic energy production for energy security and electricity affordability in Europe. Today the energy transition to renewables is not only an urgency to fight climate change but also to protect national security. Or as Germany's Finance Minister Christian Lindner put it: "renewable energies are now freedom energies."
As the EU decarbonizes, wind, solar, green hydrogen, and its derivatives will become the backbone of our energy system – delivering clean, affordable, homegrown power to all Europeans.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the need to transition away from imported fossil fuels. In REPowerEU's energy policy reaction to the invasion, the European Commission doubled down on competitive and domestic renewables to deliver energy security. REPowerEU states that the growth of wind, along with other renewables, is now a matter of "overriding public interest."
The European Commission wants Europe to have 440 GW of wind energy by 2030, up from 200 GW today. By 2050 wind energy will be as much as 1,300 GW and generate 50% of all European electricity. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects wind to be Europe's number one source of power by 2027.
The European wind industry is struggling
But to make these expansion targets for wind energy a reality, we need to see a concerted push to accelerate the growth of wind. As it stands, there are still several factors that are holding this up.
The main factor continues to be new wind farms' slow and burdensome permitting. Europe needs to issue more permits to meet its energy and climate targets. As a result, the wind industry only built 16 GW of wind in Europe last year – but we need to develop at least 31 GW a year to meet the EU's 2030 climate targets.
The second hurdle is the electricity market design. New and uncoordinated national emergency measures brought in over 2022 to respond to the energy crisis have led to a patchwork of different rules across the EU. This has diminished investor confidence – at the precise moment, we need to ramp up. The European Commission is set to present a proposal for the revision of the EU electricity market design in March 2023 – which we hope will reverse some of these unhelpful measures.
The third and final challenge is the lifeblood of the energy system itself – grid infrastructure. Transmission and distribution networks need to expand and modernize, making use of new grid and system integration technologies – interconnectors, energy islands, and other hybrid projects. Energy storage will also be vital here – storing excess supply in times of high wind but low demand and providing a backup during periods of low wind but high demand.
The result of these challenges seems paradoxical: while Europe wants more and more wind, the wind energy supply chain is struggling not only because of the low market volumes caused by the permitting bottlenecks but also because of poor auction designs, inflation, and exploding prices for commodities, raw materials, and components. Thankfully European policymakers have understood the problem – and new policy measures will aim to reinforce the European supply chain and shore up Europe's clean tech manufacturing capacity.
Regarding technology and cost-competitiveness, wind energy will continue to be one of the cheapest sources of energy available – much more affordable than fossil fuels. The new urgency of the energy crisis puts wind front and centre of the coming energy transition. The current hurdles are mostly related to policymaking and industrial ramp-up – and will need to be tackled soon if our climate targets are to be met. But there's no doubt that wind will take centre stage in the future European energy mix. And in an increasingly volatile world, having control over our energy security could make all the difference
Christoph Zipf, WindEurope
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