Europe is in the midst of a wind energy boom, with the continent now installing more wind power capacity than any other form of energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the European Wind Energy Association’s Christian Kjaer describes his vision of how wind can lead the way in making Europe’s electricity generation 100 percent renewable by 2050.
Today, only five percent of Europe’s electricity comes from wind. But that will not be the case for long. For the past two years, 40 percent of all new electricity generating capacity in Europe came from wind turbines. From Spain to Sweden, so many new turbines are being erected that Europe is on target to produce 15 percent of its electricity from wind by 2020. By 2050, half of Europe’s electricity is expected to come from wind.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, Christian Kjaer — CEO of the European Wind Energy Association, an industry group — describes the combination of government policies, entrepreneurial vision, and public support that have enabled wind to become Europe’s leading form of green energy. The 27-member European Union has passed a host of progressive policies — including tax credits, financial incentives, and priority access for renewable energy to the electricity grid — that have encouraged the growth of wind, solar, and other forms of green energy. But the EU also wields a stick, requiring member states to set renewable energy targets and retaining the right to sue those countries that fall short.
Increasingly, says Kjaer, as old power plants fired by coal and natural gas reach the end of their lives, they are being replaced by wind and solar power. The economic benefits of this transition, says Kjaer, are indisputable, with nearly 200,000 people currently employed in the European wind power sector. By 2020, Kjaer estimates 450,000 Europeans will have jobs in the wind power industry.
Kjaer is confident that, as green energy competition from Asian nations intensifies, Europe can retain its edge, thanks to its high-quality manufacturing sector and strong government support. “The winners of tomorrow’s energy wars,” he says, “are going to be those who understand how to develop new technology, deploy new technology and get the benefits of exporting that technology to the rest of the world.”
Yale Environment 360: I was wondering if you could paint a picture of the state of the European wind industry and describe what kind of growth you’ve been experiencing in recent years.
Germany, Denmark, and Spain are leading because they started early and are reaping the benefits.”
Christian Kjaer: For the past two years, the 27 member states of the European Union, taken as one, have installed more wind power capacity than any other power-generating capacity. So wind energy is currently meeting 5 percent of the electricity demand in the European Union. But in terms of new power plants, new capacity — which of course also is an indication of new jobs and economic activity in the power plant manufacturing business — 40 percent of all new capacity last year was wind. And if you add other renewables — and this is primarily PV, solar photovoltaics — 63 percent of all new capacity installed last year was from renewables. So I think that’s the most significant.
It’s even more telling that more than 75 percent of the [wind] installations last year were in five countries: Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and the U.K. We’re installing 40 percent [of new capacity], and we’re actually doing that not even looking at all the member states that have the potential to install wind energy.
In terms of the overall status of the power market, we need the European Union to install new capacity between now and the next 10, 15 years equal to about 50 percent of currently installed capacity. We need to replace existing power plants that are getting old, but also to meet expected increases in demand in the future. We believe it’s a great opportunity to make a real change in the way we supply our energy. Because we need to do investment in new power plants anyway, so we might as well invest in technologies that are compatible with the very strong and changed political agenda on renewables and on reducing carbon emissions.
e360: When you talk about the 50 percent installed capacity, are you talking about new wind generation meeting that requirement, or all renewables?
Kjaer: The European Union adopted last year legislation which mandates that each member state has a specific target for its share of renewable energy in the energy mix by 2020. And what that means collectively is that we need to increase the share of renewables in electricity from currently about 15 percent — that includes 10 percent for large hydro and about 5 percent wind energy — to 35 percent by 2020. Our large hydro can’t increase much more, because it’s already utilized. So that means if you take large hydro out, you need to increase non-large hydro renewables from currently 5 percent to about 25 percent. And of course wind energy will be one of the big contributors to that.
e360: Can you briefly sketch out how you think, in the wind sector, those very ambitious goals can be met?
The U.S. framework for investing in renewables is very unstable — it cannot be predicted more than one or two years ahead.”
Kjaer: We believe that we will reach about 230 gigawatts of wind by the end of 2020, and that’s up from approximately 80 gigawatts today. That will produce somewhere between 14 and 17 percent of our electricity, depending on the electricity demand. We need to install approximately 9.5 gigawatts of new wind capacity each year between now and 2020. Now, given that we installed more than 10 gigawatts last year, technically this is not a big challenge. If we just do what we’ve been doing the last two years in terms of new installation, then we will have 15 percent of our electricity coming from wind energy in 2020.
Now we believe that you can reach a higher level, and the European Commission has also indicated that it believes that wind energy could contribute 20 percent of European electricity in 2020. But then we really need to make a serious effort in terms of changing the way we operate our grids. Also, we would need to be a bit faster in developing an offshore grid for utilizing the offshore wind energy. That will require some additional efforts from politicians mainly, related to optimizing and expanding our grid infrastructure to accommodate a larger amount of variable wind power in the system, and also other renewables.
e360: Why is it that wind has taken off at such a respectable rate, ahead of solar?
Kjaer: The reason wind will be the main contributor to reaching these targets is that onshore wind is the cheapest of the new renewables. So the majority of this will be met by wind turbines on land. Offshore is still more expensive, but we do expect that to play an increasing role as well. But in terms of wind versus photovolyaics, we’re still significantly lower in terms of producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity.
e360: Can you say a few words about this proposed North Sea supergrid and how important that might be?
Kjaer: There’s a very strong [desire] to develop offshore wind energy. So one main element of the North Sea supergrid is that we need to accommodate a large expansion of one of our biggest future energy sources in order to avoid increasing our [oil] imports from unstable regions of the world.
We expect that with the 2020 targets we would be employing about 450,000 people [in Europe].”
One of the main reasons for the strong political support for a supergrid is also that we want to create an internal [European] market for electricity, which of course, in the end, should give consumers the most affordable electricity. That’s the whole idea about the internal market, is that it would create the free movement over borders of goods, services, and in this case electricity at the lowest cost. And in order to create an internal market for electricity you need the infrastructure, just as you need roads to move goods around the European Union.
The European Union and the United States are very similar here. In the United States you have the same challenge, that electricity is governed mainly at the state level. And it’s the same problem we have in the European Union, getting the member states to cooperate on cross-border issues, the same as between the states in the United States.
What is really needed is for member states to have much stronger collaboration, and what we have seen also recently is that a group of ten countries surrounding the North Sea, and also countries that are a bit further away from the North Sea which have an interest in it as well, have formed a group discussing, at the government level, how should we create a North Sea grid and how should we integrate offshore wind energy into that grid?
e360: When you look at the five countries that you listed that are really leading the way in wind so far, why is it that they have become the leaders? And, secondly, what government policies are necessary to have a robust wind industry?
Kjaer: Of the five countries I mentioned, there are two main groups. Germany and Spain — and we can add Denmark there, as well — started early. Spain and Germany are still large contributors to wind energy installations in the European Union. Spain was 24 percent of the market last year and Germany was 19 percent of all installed capacity in Europe last year. Denmark is not because it’s a small country, but they already get more than 20 percent of their electricity from wind energy. So there’s also a size element in this. But Germany, Spain and Denmark are leading because they started early, starting with Denmark back in the ‘80s and then also Spain and Germany in the ‘90s. They are now reaping the commercial benefits of starting early. And this is also where you see the majority of wind turbine manufacturers, but also further down the supply chain, with German, Spanish, and Danish companies dominating.
We need to beat the real competition, which is fossil fuel and nuclear.”
And the second group of countries — the U.K., France, and Italy — each installed approximately 10 percent of the European market last year. Of course, they are there also because their countries are very big compared to many of the other European Union countries. Both Italy and France installed about a thousand megawatts the last couple of years, and it could go much, much faster. Those countries that are really growing fast are countries like Portugal. It installed 7 percent of all [EU] capacity last year, but that’s quite a lot for a country the size of Portugal, and it’s one of the countries getting the largest share of electricity from wind energy in the European Union.
e360: In terms of the policies that need to be in place for a robust wind industry, what would you say are the top three or four, keeping in mind lessons the U.S. might take from what Europe has done in wind so far?
Kjaer: I think if there were one word to communicate to U.S. policymakers, it is that you need stability. I’m saying that because the U.S. framework for investing in renewables is very unstable — I mean, it cannot be predicted more than one or two years ahead. And that also means that the United States is not reaping the job creation benefits of wind energy, because a lot of components, a lot of manufacturing is imported because no one’s going to invest in a factory in the United States if they don’t know how the market looks beyond the next two years. So a long-term stable framework is what is most desperately needed in the United States. What has given rise to those [EU] markets is that you have stable frameworks and they have been long-term. The problem in the U.S. is that the framework expires every year or every second year.
e360: In terms of tax credits?
Kjaer: Tax credit, yes. Tax credit is a major source of uncertainty in the U.S. The second element of any effective legislation should be access to the grid. And what European legislation does, it mandated all 27 member states to give priority access to wind energy, which means that if you have a wind farm and a gas plant, and they’re planned projects, the wind energy should be connected first. And also, if you have plants operating on the system, electricity from the renewables plant gets fed into the grid first. And the third element is administrative procedures, building permits, et cetera. We have examples in some European countries where you need 50 different institutions to agree on approving a wind farm. So what we are promoting is one-stop shops, that you can send in an application somewhere, that there’s a deadline for how fast this application should be processed rather than having it tied up for years.
We believe we can meet 50 percent of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050 with wind energy.”
So those are the three elements: the financial predictability, the grid access, and the administrative procedures, combined with an overall target. In the case of the European Union, the national targets are mandatory, meaning that if a member state falls short of its target, it can be taken to the European Court of Justice. The European Commission can sue a member state that doesn’t meet a target, and that was one of the strongest elements of the directive that was passed.
e360: Do you feel that the European wind industry has lived up to the promise of creating new jobs?
Kjaer: There are about 190,000 people employed in the European wind energy sector. This is the employment that can be attributed to the manufacture of the turbines installed in Europe, plus the maintenance of those turbines. So, for instance, the world’s largest wind energy company is a Danish company called Vestas. This doesn’t include jobs created in Europe from wind turbines put up in the United States. So the turbines put up in the 27 member states of the EU, that’s about 190,000 jobs. The majority of those are in onshore, of course. In the past five years we have created approximately thirty new jobs every day of the year. So that’s the level of employment we’re talking about. We expect with the 2020 targets — if we’re meeting those targets, we would be employing about 450,000 people in the European Union. And almost 300,000 of those would be in onshore and the rest in offshore.
e360: So this element of green energy that President Obama’s been trying to sell, that it can be an engine of job creation, you feel has been shown in Europe.
Kjaer: There’s no doubt that it’s an engine of job creation. And if you go to Germany or to Denmark or to Spain, wind turbine manufacturing and all the follow-ons from that is an enormous part of their economies — certainly in Denmark, which is a small country. The United States, the European Union, and the vast majority of countries in the world are importing energy. And the share of imports is increasing. In Europe we import more than 50 percent of our energy. I think it’s getting clearer to many people in the world that rather sending the citizens’ money abroad to pay for imported fuels, it makes much more sense to put the money to work at home, and then export technology.
And I think this is what we will see, which will be the big difference between the last century and this century. In the last century, those who won the energy wars were those who either had the resources or controlled them in some way, and the winners of tomorrow’s energy wars are going to be those who understand how to develop new technology, deploy new technology and get the benefits of exporting that technology to the rest of the world. They’re going to need it very soon, because the fuels are not going to last forever and no one knows what the cost of those fuels will be 5, 10, 15 years from now.
e360: Do you feel that European companies are well-positioned to compete against Chinese wind turbine manufacturers?
Kjaer: It’s important to say that there’s a lot of talk about Chinese manufacturers, but it’s not only about increased competition from China. Japan — Mitsubishi has been in this for a long time. South Korea is moving, India has one of the largest wind companies in the world. So there are challenges to the European leadership position. That competition makes us all stronger. And we need that competition in order to beat the real competition, which is fossil fuel and nuclear and other ways of producing electricity.
e360: As the wind industry grows onshore and offshore in Europe, how big of a problem is it that, with the spread of turbines on the landscape and the seascape, the public may become more opposed to the expansion of turbines in many areas?
Kjaer: It is an issue. In some countries it’s a significant issue, and the problem is related to NIMBYism, or “not in my back yard.” When you take overall polls on people’s attitudes towards different energy sources, solar always comes first [in popularity], wind comes second, and then all the others afterwards. So, in general, when we see the opinion polls in the European Union, it’s always between 75 and 85 percent that think this is a very, very good idea.
Now, the problem comes when you start down at the project level. There have been many polls suggesting that you poll people prior to the turbines being built and after they were built, acceptance actually increases dramatically after the turbines are built. And this is because people are concerned about the unknown. That’s just a part of human nature. In some countries it’s a bigger problem than in other countries. Onshore, in the U.K., is very difficult because of local opposition.
But it’s my feeling that the concern from locals is biggest in the beginning of a new market taking off. So the first thousand megawatts are much more difficult to install than the next thousand megawatts. Because people get used to them, they understand that they don’t make noise anymore — the turbines twenty years ago made quite a lot of noise, today you can’t hear them, almost, if you’re more than two hundred meters away. So it is an issue, and we have a responsibility as a sector to inform people [and] maintain the dialogue with local communities.
e360: My final question is, what is your industry’s goal for 2050 in terms of what percentage of electricity production would come from wind? And given what you’ve seen so far and given the 2050 goal, has this given you a hope that it is possible for our societies to move off of fossil fuels?
Kjaer: Yes. We believe we can meet 50 percent of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050 with wind energy. Denmark is currently at 20 percent — they have an aspiration to reach 50 percent in Denmark by 2020 or 2025. Can we power our economy solely on renewables? I certainly believe so, and this goes back to something I said at the beginning of this interview. Almost two-thirds of our new capacity is from renewables. That figure was about 20 percent in the year 2000. So in nine years we’ve gone from 20 percent to 62 — by 2020 of course we can get to 100 percent of new capacity. And if we can get in 2020 to a situation where all new capacity is renewables, then we will, by definition almost, have 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050 because all the other power plants will be taken off [line].
So I’m quite confident that it can be done, but it would require a major change in our infrastructure. The infrastructure here is the absolute key to this — we need to build an infrastructure that is different. But, again, our infrastructure in Europe is aging — we haven’t been building power lines since the ‘60s or ‘70s. It needs to be replaced anyway. So we need to make sure that the infrastructure is changed in a way that it accommodates 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050.