Renewables in Europe – Who Is the Champion?

In this posting we analyse the contribution of various renewables to the energy mix. All raw data for the subsequent analysis have been taken from Eurostat.

Renewable sources of energy have seen a dramatic increase in the past decade. However, the relative growth is not distributed equally between the various sources. Solar panels and wind mills are mainly associated with the increasing use of renewables. This is mainly due to the media giving considerable room to them when it comes to emphasizing the importance of alternative energies.

And indeed the growth rates of solar and wind energy have been outstanding and, what is more, they are likely to continue growing over the next decades. However, growth rates may look impressive, especially when starting from a very low level. One should not forget that solar panels were hardly existing some twenty years ago, and the same is true for wind mills. Clearly, political targets served as a backbone for boosting their widespread use. This, in turn, has also led to considerable technological improvements, making solar and wind more competitive.

Put in perspective, hydro power, though lacking any increase during the past decade, is still by far the biggest source of renewable energy. Although their advance is impressive, solar and wind are currently much smaller contributors to the energy mix than hydro, as can be seen in Fig. 1. Actually, wind mills may have a realistic chance to outnumber their hydroelectric competitors within the next 10 to 15 years, depending on their pace of growth.

Fig. 1 Renewables in Europe. Production in GWh.

From Fig. 1 it is obvious that all other sources except hydro and wind are for the time being less important. In fact, in this figure wind, TWO (tide, wave and ocean) and biomass are hardly distinguishable. Let us therefore zoom in on that picture, taking into account all renewables except hydro. As a result we obtain Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 Renewables in Europe, all except hydro. Production in GWh.

Then it becomes obvious how much bigger the input from wind mills to the energy mix is than the production from solar, biomass and TWO. Still, the difference is at least one order of magnitude. Nevertheless, with solar growth rates being considerably bigger than the ones for wind power it is possible that the latter might be overtaken by the former within the next 15 to 20 years.

In order to get a feeling for the relative importance for solar, TWO and biomass, we zoom in once again on Fig. 2, thereby dropping the curve for wind energy. The results can be seen in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 As in Fig.2, but without wind. Production in GWh.

From this, two things become clear immediately. First, the contribution of TWO has been essentially stable over the period in question. In addition, its input to the power grid is virtually negligible with less than 500 GWh in 2009. In fact, production figures for TWO have gone down since 1998, when 590 GWh were produced, amounting to a reduction of 15% over the period in question. The second observation is that solar energy is growing much more rapidly than biomass. Actually, solar could overtake biomass in 2009.

Hydropower and TWO may be considered as “established” technologies, i.e. they have been in place for the past 40 years or more. Their production capacity has remained unchanged for at least a decade. As a consequence, their output figures have deacreased rather than increased during that period. Wind, solar and biomass on the other hand have proven their potential to grow substantially. Their full capacity is still not exploited. In any case, it appears that their relative weight in the energy mix is going to become bigger in the future.

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