Getting out of the slow lane: Europe needs to accelerate to a 100% renewable energy destination


Picture of Wendel Trio
Wendel Trio

Director of Climate Action Network Europe

Wendel Trio is Director of Climate Action Network Europe

A global transition to a 100% renewable energy system, combined with strong energy efficiency measures, is the only way to rapidly reduce emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Studies show that such a transition can be achieved through currently available production, storage and demand technologies. Given the brisk pace at which the 2050 deadline for meeting the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement is approaching, the existence of these technologies is encouraging, particularly in the case of rich countries where such technology is more easily accessible.

A 100% renewable energy Europe will be a more interconnected Europe, with an electricity mix dominated by wind and solar powered trans-European and cross-border energy grids. In addition to increased electrification across industry, transport, heating and cooling, the enhanced connections between these sectors will mean a much more efficient energy system. More citizens, communities and municipalities will become their own energy suppliers and feed into the grid. As a result, citizens will benefit from cleaner air, better health and more job opportunities in labour intensive areas like renewables construction and maintenance.

This transition makes practical sense for Europe, not only because climate change and renewable energy rank high on the list of pressing concerns for citizens, but also because it enables citizens to engage with the Europe-wide energy transition at local level.

More citizens, communities and municipalities will become their own energy suppliers and feed into the grid

It is high time for Europe to charge up with renewable power, put its foot on the accelerator of its electric vehicle and start journeying towards its destination of 100% renewable energy.

But Europe is still in the slow lane. The revised Renewable Energy Directive, included in the Clean Energy Package legislation for 2020-2030, is committing the European Union to a binding target of 32% renewable energy at EU level by 2030. This is just a starting point and does not reflect falling renewable technology costs or costs of inaction on climate change. To ensure that these targets are met and to unlock benefits for citizens, the EU needs to reach a share of at least 45% renewable energy by 2030. Politicians must use the target’s 2023 revision clause, a clause built into the legislation, to boost ambition. To incentivise EU efforts, the Directive has laid out provisions which would enable citizens to generate and consume energy and allow for communities to participate in the market without having to comply with the regulatory conditions typically tailored for businesses.

The electricity Market Design files, currently going through trialogue negotiations, are still up for grabs. At the very least, priority dispatch for installing renewables under 500 kW to the grid should be safeguarded. Furthermore, member states should be allowed to set higher thresholds for citizens and energy communities. European energy markets are still biased towards favouring fossil fuels. Granting renewables priority dispatch to the grid would go a long way towards correcting the imbalance and would provide citizens and energy communities with additional investment certainty, thus building confidence in the European energy transition and encouraging even more support on the project.

Correcting this bias would also mean getting rid of some of the other bumps in the road, namely fossil fuel subsidies. Politicians must safeguard against capacity payments to coal power plants in the EU’s Electricity Market Design and use the negotiations on the next long-term EU budget for 2021-2027 to make a case for the exclusion of fossil fuels from EU public investment. The next EU budget can also set an ambitious shift in financial flows towards renewable infrastructure, research and development. EU funding on infrastructure, worth €60 billion a year, must be used to develop transport electrification, grid infrastructure, electricity storage and smart distribution.

Implementing the Clean Energy Package will offer member states an opportunity to pick up some speed. Under the new Governance Regulation, they will set their own, non-binding commitments as a means to contribute to the overall EU 2030 renewables target and will follow up by outlining their strategy for achieving the planned targets in their National Climate and Energy Plans. Nothing is holding member states back from being more ambitious with their 2030 or 2050 strategies. Denmark, which has already set in motion a plan for achieving 100% renewable power and heat by 2035 and 100% renewable energy in all sectors by 2050, can set an example by demonstrating what ambitious plans and strategies can look like.

European energy markets are still biased towards favouring fossil fuels

The EU will build its own long term climate strategy – based around a 2050 emissions reduction target – taking into account national plans. Now that the European Commission consultations on the strategy are underway, it has become clear that there is strong support for net zero. Integrating a 100% renewable energy scenario would be the most viable and robust way to arrive at the goal of net zero emissions. The EU should follow the leadership of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a global partnership of climate vulnerable countries who have committed to go 100% renewable.

Beyond its official borders, the EU can support accession countries by implementing the Renewable Energy Directive along with some of the other Directives included under the Energy Community Treaty. Southeast Europe holds some of the most pollutive coal plants on the continent and there are even plans in place to increase their coal capacity. Providing the right incentives like funding for energy efficiency, renewables integration and better regional connectivity, could guide accession countries in the right direction.

Now that we know the destination, it is time for Europe to pick up speed. To ensure that Europe stays on track with its energy commitments, it needs a long-term decarbonisation strategy which envisions a 100% renewable energy system. Ambitious member states and countries can help speed Europe on its way.

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