Well, is it? You would certainly never think so from Figure 1, which shows renewables generation in the EU28 more than doubling between 2003 and 2014 and continuing to grow at a healthy clip (note that except for Figure 3 all the data used in this post are from the BP 2015 Statistical Review):
Figure 1: Annual EU28 generation from renewables, 1985-2014
Nor from Figure 2, which shows the EU28 on track to meet its target of obtaining 27% of its energy from renewables by 2030 with room to spare:
Figure 2: Percentage of EU28 energy demand met by renewables, 1985-2014
Nor from this quote from the European Commission, which less than two months ago expressed its complete satisfaction with the way things were going:
The current EU renewable energy framework has been successful in triggering a profound transformation of the European energy sector. Renewable energy is becoming mainstream – not only in the EU, but also in the rest of the world, and this is a result of determined European energy and climate policies. By being pioneers and leading in the deployment of renewable energy, Europe shows the rest of the world that decarbonisation is possible. Moreover, the significant programmes and projects initiated in Europe have converted renewables from a discrete contributor to the energy mix to a visible and reliable source of energy for everyone.
But on closer inspection things are not quite as rosy as they seem.
My attention was first drawn to the fact that all is not well with renewables in Europe by the graphic below, which I came across while researching the Difficulties Of Powering The Modern World With Renewables post. It shows clean energy investment in Europe peaking in the second quarter of 2011 and declining since then as quickly as it went up:
There are signs that the downtrend in investment may be flattening out, but if it continues, then what?
Then renewables growth in Europe soon grinds to a halt.
The decline in investment is not the only sign of an impending slowdown. Downtrends are also visible in the generation statistics. We’ll get to them shortly, but first we have to set the scene. Figure 4 shows annual generation in the EU28 from the three main sources of renewable energy – 1) hydro, 2) biomass, waste gases and others, collectively referred to as biomass, and 3) wind & solar, which I’ve combined for convenience, since 1985. (BP supplies incomplete generation data for seven small EU28 countries – Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia – but this will make no appreciable difference to the EU28 totals.)
Figure 4: Annual EU28 generation from individual renewables sources, 1985-2014
Between 1985 and 2014 annual renewables generation in the EU28 increased by 520TWh, with 45TWh (9%) of the increase coming from hydro, 129TWh (25%) from biomass & others and 346TWh (67%) from wind & solar. So far as I know the EU28 has no significant amount of new hydro capacity in the pipeline, so future growth of renewable energy will depend on continued growth in wind and solar, and to a lesser extent biomass. What levels of growth might we expect?
Figure 5 shows annual percentage growth in biomass generation in the EU28 since 1993 (the data before 1993 are too erratic to estimate growth rates). Growth rates increased after 1993, peaked in 2003 and since then have been on a declining trend that shows no obvious sign of flattening out:
Figure 5: Annual growth rate, EU28 biomass + other generation, 1993-2014
Projecting the trend line drawn through the post-2002 data (I used 2002 instead of 2003 to avoid being accused of cherry-picking a high start year) shows growth straight-lining to zero in 2025, in which case future EU28 biomass generation will look like this:
Figure 6: Actual and projected growth of EU28 biomass + other generation, 1985-2030
Is it possible that growth in biomass generation will cease in 2025? The future of biomass in Europe is certainly questionable. I can’t get any hard numbers, but it seems that most biomass is co-fired in small amounts with coal in coal plants, which are scheduled for extinction in much of the EU28. Fuel supply is also an issue, with Europe already having to import large tonnages of wood pellets from the US. Then there are the growing doubts as to whether biomass is really as carbon-neutral as it’s claimed to be. So I think the answer is yes. Growth in biomass generation in the EU28 could indeed zero out within ten years.
Figure 7 shows annual percentage growth in wind & solar generation, the major players, since 1993 (the generation totals are too low to estimate meaningful growth rates before then). Growth rates have been generally declining since 1993 and declining precipitously since 2011, the year in which investment peaked (Figure 3):
Figure 7: Annual growth rate, EU28 wind + solar generation, 1993-2014
Figure 8 shows what future EU28 wind & solar generation will look like if the decline continues to follow the long-term trend line. Growth goes to zero nine years from now in 2023:
Figure 8: Actual and projected growth of EU28 wind + solar generation 1985-2030, using Figure 7 trend line
And Figure 9 shows what the growth curve will look like if the post-2011 downtrend continues:
Figure 9: Actual and projected growth of EU28 wind + solar generation 1985-2030, using post-2011 downtrend
Are these results plausible? As the IPCC would say, they’re projections, not predictions, and certainly wind and solar growth won’t come to a total halt this year if only because of projects under development. But the writing seems to be on the wall. Renewable energy growth in the EU28 is headed for a slowdown. The bubble won’t go pop and disappear altogether, but it will begin to shrink, like a balloon with a pinhole in it. Then the question becomes whether the EU28 will blow the balloon back up with yet more renewable energy subsidies, which are what caused it to inflate it in the first place.