Back in 2008 the then French president Nicholas Sarkozy used his country’s presidency of the EU to secure agreement for 20% of Europe’s energy to come from renewables by 2020. It was a move that kickstarted the mass deployment of renewable technologies across our continent.
So what should we make of the European commission’s latest proposals for 2030? These proposals have a stated aim of increasing the share of renewables across the EU as a whole to 27%, but at the same time remove the central tenet and driving force of the current arrangements – specific legally-binding targets for each and every EU country.
Many commentators and industry groups are far from satisfied. “The commission’s proposal for 2030 is a lame-duck”, according to Frauke Thies of the European solar association. “The lack of ambition in not ensuring there are national binding targets is a disappointment”, said Maria McCaffery from the UK wind trade body. The fear is that governments may focus on traditional or as-yet-unproven technologies like nuclear or Carbon Capture and Storage to try to reduce carbon emissions, rather than drive forward our renewables transition.
But are such concerns justified, and is there really a risk that renewables could be sidelined in the UK after 2020?
Renewable energy up to 2020
Providing all goes to plan, the UK will see a massive increase in renewable energy in the next six years. In 2012 just over 4% of the energy we used came from renewable sources. By 2020 the government estimates this will reach 15%, meaning the UK meets its binding share of the EU’s overall 20% target.
If this doesn’t sound like much, remember that it is a percentage of all energy – not only electricity but heat and transport too. Looking at solely electricity, we currently get around 11% from renewables, and this is due to rise to 33% by 2020. According to National Grid, this is will mean more than a doubling of current levels of wind power and a four-fold increase in solar power in just six years.
The EU 2020 target is playing a critical role in this transformation. In a period where the UK is already close to near-term carbon reduction goals due to deindustrialisation and a long-term trend of reduced coal use, it is unlikely our government would have put in place the necessary measures to support emerging renewable technologies without a binding obligation to do so. The rapid cost reductions that we have witnessed over recent years may never have materalised.
Such measures include the feed-in-tariff which guarantees a fixed income for electricity from small-scale renewables, and the Levy Control Framework which provides £2.5 billion in support for renewables this year, rising to £7 billion in 2020. As long as these remain in place with investment continuing to flow, we should meet our 2020 target. This will be a genuine achievement if it comes to pass.
The ‘big hairy’ carbon target for 2030
Looking further ahead to 2030, whilst it looks unlikely we’ll have the same kind of binding renewable target, the European Commission is proposing a meaningful carbon reduction target of 40% below 1990 levels. Of all the top-down objectives the EU could set, the carbon target is considered the big one, or the “big hairy” one as it’s recently been called. It will be a driving force behind increasing amounts of renewables after 2020.
Enough to maintain the UK’s existing climate change goals
The way EU carbon reduction targets work is that each country contributes differently according to its circumstances. Under the new plans, some countries will reduce emissions by more than 40% by 2030, others by less. The UK will be in the first group – expected to continue the impressive reductions we’ve already made over the last two decades.
And critically, this should be sufficient for Britain’s pre-existing climate change targets to be maintained in the face of political pressure.
The UK’s fourth carbon budget – agreed by parliament under the Climate Change Act – requires our greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by 50% by 2025. According to the Committee on Climate Change, this cut was calculated on the assumption of EU-wide action at the level that is now being proposed, meaning there is “no legal or economic basis to change it”. This matters, because the coalition government has previously threatened to water down our domestic ambitions if European action failed to materialise.
The need to decarbonise our electricity grid
So what will a 50% cut in greenhouse gases require?
Every serious analysis which has looked at how the UK can achieve these kinds of cuts concludes that our electricity sector must come first and go furthest. It is the easiest part of our economy to decarbonise, and we already have the technologies we need.
In 2013 each unit of electricity from the National Grid (kilowatt hour, kWh) resulted in an average of445g of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. This figure irons out some big differences between coal power which emits a lot more, and wind power which emits no CO2, but it gives a sense of the overall picture.
By 2020, thanks to more renewables and less coal, this will be down to around 210g CO2 per kWh. By 2030, in order to meet our 50% economy-wide carbon target, it will need to be 100g according to the government, or 50g according Committee on Climate Change.
Renewable energy between 2020 and 2030
And what do we need to do to get our electricity emissions down to 100g CO2 per kWh by 2030? Recent detailed economic and power system analysis by the government (here and here) and National Grid (here) gives a one-word answer to this question – renewables.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what quantities of different types of generation will be in the mix in 16 years time but the government’s modelling shows that to meet our Climate Change Act targets, we’ll need the equivalent of at least 12 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind and 6GW of smaller renewables like solar to be built in the 2020s. This is on top of the doubling of wind and quadrupling of solar that we’ll already have seen by 2020.
To put this in context, just 1GW of offshore wind turbines produces enough power each year to meet the average electricity demand of over 700,000 homes.
But even these impressive figures are probably undercooked. 12GW of offshore wind between 2020 and 2030 represents the extra renewables we’ll need if we also stop using coal, build 7 new nuclear reactors (10GW) and put carbon capture and storage on five 1 megawatt (MW) coal plants. Yet you only have to consider the recently announced inquiry the government’s approach to supporting Hinkley C to see that the chances of seven new nuclear reactors being built anytime soon are diminishing by the day.
And if nuclear and CCS don’t get built by 2030 in the quantities the government hopes? Then renewables will be the only technologies that can fill the gap and be built in ever bigger amounts, at ever increasing costs, whilst ensuring we play our part in tackling climate change too.
The EU’s proposed 2030 targets may not be perfect, but they go just far enough.
Sam Friggens is a writer for renewable energy funding platform Abundance Generation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Friggens. This article originally appeared on Abundance’s blog, where you can also find details of the assumptions Sam used for this article.