The EU has put its energy behind the promise of wind power. With initiatives like REPowerEU increasing the target for wind-generated electricity, the next decade will hopefully see massive growth in the production of wind farms.
Why is wind power such an important source of renewable energy, how and where will we install these new wind farms, and how can we counter any negative side effects the energy source brings?
These questions and more were at the heart of Euronews’ latest Debate, hosted by the team behind Climate Now – a monthly programme giving you the latest climate facts from the Copernicus Climate Change Service, analyse the trends and explain how our planet is changing.
Watch the full debate in the video player below:
Why must the EU move away from gas?
Renewable energy has become both a political and existential goal of the EU in the past few years. On an existential level, it is crucial that we reduce our reliance on carbon-based sources of electrical energy in order to halt climate change. But it is only recently that the political benefits of reliable EU-sourced renewable energy have become so readily apparent.
Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU relied on Russia for 44 per cent of its gas – it is clear then for both climate and political reasons, the EU must reduce its reliance on this resource.
“This is a wake up call,” Morten Helveg Petersen, Member of European Parliament, said early in the debate.
“I think it’s fair to say that we should have done this years ago. What we’re doing now is basically sponsoring Putin’s war machine because we haven’t built up with renewables or been good enough in terms of energy efficiency.”
What are the EU’s wind power targets?
The EU had 189 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity at the end of 2021. Although that is a useful amount already, it is a long way off newly set targets. The European Commission’s Green Deal had previously put the wind power capacity target at 450 GW by 2030. The recent REPowerEU proposal has upped that goal to 480 GW by 2030.
The REPowerEU initiative has been brought in as a response to the Russian energy crisis.
“We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of rising energy prices, diversify our gas supply for next winter and accelerate the clean energy transition,” Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission President said.
To reach the target goal of 480 GW, Europe would need to install 32-32 GW of wind generating infrastructure every year. However, WindEurope has forecast that Europe is only on track to install an additional 18 GW per year, falling far short of the target.
And it’s not just new turbines that need to be created to meet this goal. Many of the already functioning turbines will reach the end of their operational lifetime by 2030, so they will need to be replaced, upping the actual requirement of new infrastructure per year.
As such, there remain multiple questions about how Europe will manage to reach its targets: How will Europe increase production to meet the goal and where the wind farms will be placed?
The European Commission wants wind to source half of Europe’s electricity by 2050, which will require a 25-time increase in offshore wind generation.
Currently, wind supplies on average 16 per cent of Europe’s electricity demand, with Denmark leading the pack at 48%, followed by Ireland and Germany.
To meet the demand, there will need to be an increase in the permissions given for the construction of wind farms. The EU has put forward plans that say renewable energy infrastructure can be considered in the overriding public interest. This will change how the planning permissions for wind farms are considered in comparison with questions of local biodiversity.
But WindEurope has expressed concern at the low volume of permitted projects for wind turbine manufacture.
One of the biggest hurdles to implementing permissions is not a lack of shared interest, explains MEP Petersen.
“What is striking though is is that at a Pan-European level, we are quite bad in terms of integrating our markets,” he tells our Climate Now panel. “This is why we need the permitting issues to be resolved.”
“You have a lot of countries all over Europe where this process of applying for permits is still based on paper. You see developers shipping and ferrying enormous amounts of paperwork to understaffed authorities at a local, regional, and national level. So this has to be rethought in terms of content and in terms of process in order to reduce these these times.”
“I don’t think today, the bottleneck for wind development in Europe or elsewhere is the supply of equipment,” says Carlo Zorzoli, Head of Business Development, Enel Green Power.
“The main bottleneck is time. It takes time to get a permit and then to get the power plant. So, if we look at the average time to get a powerplant permit, and it’s not just for wind, the same applies also for solar, we see that we are already late.”
On or offshore?
If more permissions can be granted, there is also the question of where the wind farms can go.
Currently, much of the expected increase in wind energy capacity will come from onshore wind. However, it is important that Europe can utilise an increase in offshore wind.
Offshore wind farms built further out to sea are in range to receive more consistent and stronger winds. Harnessing the potential offshore wind in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea will be crucial to maintaining the Commission’s targets. However, offshore wind farms are notoriously more expensive to set up and maintain.
“I think we have to be open to all technologies and all options on this and I think it’s important also to be open to floating offshore,” Petersen says, referring to offshore wind turbines that are installed into floating structures, instead of fixed points under the ocean.
“[Floating offshore] is hopefully going to decrease in 5-10 years or so. Hopefully, becoming competitive with the fixed volume installations that that we would see in the Baltics. We should be open to to all kinds of renewable technologies out there and hopefully see it realise the same dramatic fall in costs that we’ve seen offshore and onshore over the last five years.”
The question of how turbines will evolve was tackled by expert Kenneth Thomsen from the Danish Technical University. He says that offshore turbines will keep on growing, within the limits of our ability to manufacture and transport the components. However onshore, “We see a tendency to a levelling off in the size of the turbines, which is natural, and focussing also on other elements like noise and visual impact.”
Relying on variable wind
Offshore wind’s improved consistency is also of use to target the problem of variability. We all know that wind is unpredicatable, and the risk of low periods of wind is serious to an electricity grid increasingly reliant on its power.
Last year there was an overall decrease in wind speed in Ireland, the UK, Czechia and Denmark. However, there are also above average winds in Greece, Estonia, Italy and Bulgaria.
“Climate data is incredibly important to understand the potential wind generation capacity but also to understand the variability through space and time,” explains Dr Samantha Burgess, Deputy Director of Copernicus Climate Change Service.
“The impacts of climate change influence how that variability changes. So in the case of wind, according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), they have determined through scientific robustness that in some parts of the world, wind wind energy potential will increase, and in some parts of the world, it will decrease.”
“There’s a large amount of uncertainty in terms of where that will occur. But this is why climate monitoring is so important to understand where and when, and how frequently that variability occurs,” she says.
Dr Hannah Bloomfield from the University of Bristol said the ‘wind drought’ in the UK was absolutely ‘not normal’ and could be classed as an ‘extreme’ event.
However, she says it came at a politically opportune moment: “I think it actually came at the perfect time because it came in the lead into COP26, the Conference of Parties, and the UK government was saying we’re going to build 80 gigawatts of new wind energy, it’s going to be wonderful. And I think it was a really almost poignant reminder from an atmosphere about the variability we have.”
Creating enough renewable infrastructure
How do operators work around the problem of variability? “The secret is geographical diversification, technical diversification, mixing different technologies and hybridising power plants,” suggests Zorzoli. Part of the diversification would be to create more infrastructure than the system requires, he says, as this would create a buffer zone for times of unfavourable wind variability.
Geographical diversification is also important as areas of high and low wind change. Last year, the Mediterranean was windier than average, so wind farms need to be ready to take up that variable weather. Additionally, Burgess recommends a similar diversification of other renewable power sources such as solar.
“The reality is that there is wind generation potential all across Europe, along with other renewable energy sources,” she says. “So having that diversity in place so that you can take advantage of wind when it is present, of sun when it is present, of hydropower and manage for it to be active when it’s required, is incredibly important.”
If you were to utilise the same space for both solar and wind farms, you could make great use of space that is only being utilised for renewable energy generation 50 per cent of the time, suggests Zorzoli.
However, “it’s unlikely that you have the sunniest and windiest place in the same place,” he notes.
Nevertheless, once you have already invested the resources into a pre-existing wind farm, it will make it more feasible and cost effective to create an interconnection with other renewable sources, Zorzoli says.
The role of the consumer
The expansion of wind means overcoming political, administrative, technical and scientific challenges. But the consumer has an important role to play, too, according to Copernicus’ Burgess.
“If we have more pull from society to say it’s not good enough to not be able to buy renewable energy, to not have energy security then it will become an increasing political priority,” she concludes.
Meet our panellists:
Dr Samantha Burgess is Deputy Director of C3S, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, working to improve understanding of climate-related risks. C3S provides open access to climate data globally to inform better decision-making. Sam has previously focused on environmental resilience, sustainable finance & ocean governance in roles including chief scientific advisor & head of policy in government, in business, NGOs and in academia.
Born in Milan, Carlo Zorzoli received a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Rome La Sapienza and an MBA from Duke University – Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina (USA). He currently holds the role of Head of Business Development of Enel Green Power and has more than twenty years of experience in the overall energy sector.
Carlo has held many positions dealing mainly with the development of the conventional and above all renewable electricity generation business. Throughout his career in the energy sector, He has worked in Europe mainly in distribution, in Brazil in renewables and conventional generation as well as in HVAC transmission systems, in the United Arab Emirates in CCGT and water desalination projects, and in the rest of the Americas in renewable generation.
Morten Helveg Petersen has served as a member of the European Parliament since 2014 as a Vice-Chair of ITRE, acting as shadow rapporteur in several key reports such as the European Energy Security Strategy, the implementation report on the Energy Efficiency Directive, rapporteur on the regulation on the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), and the European Parliament’s Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy, which was adopted in February 2022.
He is currently shadow rapporteur on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Before that, he served as a member of the Danish parliament from 1998 to 2009. He has also worked for the European Commission, the Confederation of Danish Industry, and as Managing Director of the industry association Danish Media. He is Chair of Energy Solutions, a cross-party European Parliamentary network which seeks to bring a holistic approach to EU Energy Legislation.
Kenneth Thomsen has been working within wind energy since 1990, starting out with the first many years in research of wind turbine dynamics, aeroelasticity, loads and control. During two periods, he held positions in the wind industry, 8 years at Siemens Wind Power where he headed the Loads and Control department, and 2 years at Envisions Shanghai, where he was Director of Overseas Loads and Control. Since 2020 he has held the position as Head of Wind Turbine Design Division at the Technical University of Denmark.
Dr Hannah Bloomfield is a research scientist at the University of Bristol, who has spent the last eight years working at the University of Reading studying the impacts of climate variability and climate change on national-level power systems.
Hannah specialises in modelling UK and European electricity demand and renewable generation. She has also worked on developing these tools for Mexico and multiple regions of Africa. A key outcome of her work has been to improve the accessibility of large meteorological datasets to non-specialists.
Euronews science reporter Jeremy Wilks covers everything from climate change to healthcare innovation. He has reported on science research, innovation and digital technology across Europe for over a decade. He regularly hosts live debates both on Euronews digital platforms and at large conference events. Jeremy is the presenter of the monthly Climate Now series on Euronews.