EU renewable energy policy: looking beyond leaders, laggards and political will

With a lot of interim targets for the EU 2020 agenda already behind us the time has come to evaluate what Member States have achieved so far and what still needs to be done to meet the renewable energy targets in six years’ time. Equally, it is an opportune time to (re)consider the processes involved in developing domestic renewable policy informed by EU targets and agenda.

In the beginning of May I took part in a workshop titled The EU Renewable Energy Policy: Challenges and Opportunities organised by a team from the Environmental Policy Research Center (FFU) of Freie University in Berlin. The workshop reviewed the development of wind, solar, hydro power and biomass energy in several Member States and discussed the extent to which the processes of Europeanisation have changed the make up of domestic energy sectors. The discussion included over 24 researchers from a wide range of institutions, who reviewed a mixed bag of countries including France, Italy, Spain, UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. This overview of renewable energy policy across the EU reinforced for me the range of issues and nuances that are obscured by using blanket terms like political will, leaders and laggards. Several trends that emerged from the discussion suggest that it is high time for a shift in how we think about renewable energy policy in Member States.

While initially the EU renewable directives did bring about significant changes of energy policy in most countries, it translated into changes in their energy mix that were significantly less impressive. The history of renewable energy in Europe since the 1990s shows that no such thing as direct transposition of EU directives could possibly exist. EU directives cannot be simply “downloaded” onto very different national contexts. Instead what emerges is a process of negotiation between the domestic context and the EU targets and policy. This makes thinking about the implementation of EU renewable policy in terms of leaders and laggards rather unhelpful and obsolete. Are leaders countries which have developed the capacity to quickly and fully implement EU renewable directives? Or countries which have succeeded in meeting their (interim) renewable targets? Because on one hand, the variety of renewable histories discussed showed that renewable targets can be achieved without the full implementation of EU directives. On the other hand, the full implementation of EU renewable directives was not a guarantee of coming close to achieving relevant targets.

Thinking about Member States in terms of leaders and laggards tends to reinforce framing diversity in the EU in terms of a core and a periphery. Recent accession states like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are often categorised as laggards in EU renewable policy, firmly positioned in the periphery, perpetually locked in the grips of “old ideologies” and “their love of coal” not quite fitting in with the “rest of Europe”. For example, prompted by EU Directives Bulgaria managed to develop its wind and solar sectors from scratch in a short period of time achieving its renewable target 8 years ahead of time.

A popular view is that the most important barrier to achieving the 2020 renewable targets is the lack of political will to take all necessary steps. Lack of political will is seen as the cause for the series of retroactive measures which have swept through the EU in the past few years, and is discussed as a key factor of the domestic context of laggard Member States. Industry representatives are warning that if nothing changes the EU as a whole is unlikely to achieve the set 2020 renewable targets, coming closer to 17-18% instead.

However, the story that emerged from the review of this mixed bag of Member States proved more complex and less linear than it is often considered. Firstly, all countries were both laggards and leaders depending on the sector and period on which the discussion is focused. Countries who have shown the necessary institutional capacity to develop one type of renewable subsector have failed in another. It proves to show that renewable energy policy implementation is a messy process which could sometimes take a circular form.

Furthermore, through the development of wind and solar capacity a great deal of learning has taken place at national level. This can be seen in the rapid increase of new capacities followed by a quick reversal of policy and adjustments to feed-in tariffs. For most countries wind and solar power have been at the forefront of the of Europeanisation of the renewable sector, and have had a profound effect on other renewables in the EU. The wind and solar power sectors have not only helped develop institutional capacities for renewable policy at national, urban and EU level but have also become gatekeepers to the development of other types of renewables, e.g. in the case of new Member States where their rapid growth has led to serious problems with grid capacity.

Another trend that emerged from the discussion at the workshop needs to be considered. The synchronised development of the grid capacity necessary to accommodate rapidly increasing levels of (especially intermittent) renewables like wind and solar was behind many of the cases where retroactive measures were introduced, regardless whether the Member State in question was considered a leader or a laggard. So far renewable energy policy has been focused on creating incentives and opportunities for the development of generation capacities, while concerns about the integration of new capacities into the grid has taken more of a secondary role. Many industry representatives continue to argue that congested electricity grids indicate more of a lack of political will at national level than a serious technical barrier and call for more ambitious EU targets in 2030 and beyond.

However, the wave of retroactive measures has not only left stranded projects and assets behind but has also diminished belief in the profitability of renewable projects. Since even before the introduction of first EU Renewable Directives in 2009 generators and developers have learned a lot, developing bigger and more powerful energy projects. However, the parallel development of the grid requires not only traditional means of reinforcement but also significant levels of technological, regulatory and network innovation which started much later and is facing a steep learning curve. Furthermore, developing distribution and transmission networks capable of enabling higher levels of renewables will also result in lower cost of energy and will reduce project delays. Perhaps this calls for a shift away from focusing incentivising renewable generation towards incentivising and creating targets for grid development and innovation (largely covered by the concept of smart grids) in the next stage of renewable policy in the EU.

The workshop will inform the publication of an edited book titled “A Guide to Renewable Energy Policy in the EU: When Europe ‘Greens’ Power” edited by Dr. Israel Solorio Sandoval and Dr. Mischa Bechberger. It is expected to be published by Edward Elgar in the beginning of 2015 and it is envisioned as a handbook on EU renewable energy policies.


By Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow, SEG, SPRU, University of Sussex

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