Advocates of greater use of renewable generating technologies in the U.S. have long pointed at Europe as the proper model for the modern major economy. Europe was years ahead of the U.S. in installing wind and solar generation, planning a smart and green grid, and adopting mechanisms such as “feed-in tariffs” (we called them “Standard Offer 4” when they failed in California last century) to encourage green energy.
But lately, the green glow is dimming across the pond, as nations discover the inherent limits of the technologies and their costs in economies that face crushing burdens well beyond the need to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The French news service AFP reported recently that Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, told a conference in Abu Dhabi that government support for renewable energy “may be slowing down in Europe.” Birol pointed specifically to Germany and Spain as countries where the government is backing away from a heavy commitment to wind and sun as power generators.
Bloomberg Businessweek reported that in Germany, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to reduce the country’s previously growing support for solar and is engaged in discussions about the shape and pace of the program, but not some sort of reduction in subsidies. Germany, Europe’s largest and strongest economy, has long subsidized wind and solar in various ways. In an article titled “Re-Evaluating Germany’s Blind Faith in the Sun,” Der Spiegel commented, “The costs of subsidizing solar electricity have exceeded the 100-billion-euro mark in Germany, but poor results are jeopardizing the country’s transition to renewable energy. The government is struggling to come up with a new concept to promote the inefficient technology in the future.”
The German developments are particularly surprising in light of Germany’s announced abandonment of nuclear power. It now appears that the country will make up the slack caused by shutting down its nuclear generation with gas-fired units.
Spain, another traditional sun-worshiper, is also taking a hard look at its solar energy subsidies. At the end of January, Spain stopped all subsidies to new renewable projects, including solar, wind, co-generation, and waste-to-energy. Bloomberg Businessweek said the Spanish government took the action “to help curb its budget deficit and rein in power-system borrowings backed by the state that reached 24 billion euros ($31 billion) at the end of 2011.” The story added, “The Spanish action follows Germany’s announcement last week that it would phase out support for solar panels by 2017 and the U.K.’s legal battle to reduce its subsidies for the industry.”
The UK last fall cut its subsidies for biomass and waste-to-energy projects but left wind alone. Now, calls are increasing for the Conservative Party government of David Cameron to take an ax to wind towers. Cameron has sought to refashion the Tories into a party of green energy, but that’s not working well in times of austerity, according to Yorkshire Post columnist Jonathan Reed. He wrote recently that “in the corridors of Westminster, Mr Cameron is finding that going green is not as straightforward as he may have hoped. And there’s one topic in particular which is reaching boiling point within the Prime Minister’s own ranks—onshore wind farms.”
Among the Brits who have revealed an enmity toward windmills is the venerable (he recently turned 90) Duke of Edinburgh. Prince Philip has proclaimed wind power a “disgrace” and said those who support them believe in “a fairy tale.” While the husband of the Queen of England has no official standing or governmental power, The Telegraph noted that his “comments will be seized upon by the burgeoning lobby who say wind farms are ruining the countryside and forcing up energy bills.”
Amidst the tottering European economy, the EU is discovering the weaknesses of an economic federation that is not politically integrated as the region faces problems developing a new electric grid to aggregate power from the various renewable assets. The idea is to create an integrated, intelligent “supergrid” that uses scale to overcome some of the major local limits of renewables, such as intermittency. Imagine linking wind from Scotland and solar power from Spain.
The reality is that the task is daunting. The New York Times reported, “Because energy is a heavily regulated sector, one of the biggest obstacles to building a supergrid is the long negotiations required to bridge differences among individual countries’ rules. Budget woes, too, may limit the availability of investment from Brussels and national capitals.” Even staunch advocates of the supergrid, the newspaper reports, are resigned to seeing it develop piecemeal, “between pairs of countries or through regional projects, rather than being coordinated across Europe.”
But there remain some good prospects for green energy development in Europe. France, where the atom is king of the electric generating mountain, recently issued its first solicitation for development of offshore wind. Three industrial consortiums are bidding for the first 3-GW phase, which has a target date of 2015. A second 3-GW slice is in the works for 2020. France has been a laggard in developing renewable energy capacity but has now begun ramping up its program.
—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’S executive editor.