In many ways, Europe is still ahead of the rest. It has more capacity installed than any other region, is second only to Asia for new annual capacity and is home to some of the biggest brands in the business. But some of the factors that put Europe ahead are waning just as new challenges are making themselves known. At a time of economic woes and open discussion about the global relevance of Europe, the continent is losing ground to the rest of the world as a destination for wind energy investment.
A major driver of EU wind growth in the past few years has been the agreement to cooperate towards increased use of renewables by 2020. Much of the success of these targets written into the 2009 Renewables Directive stems from the ability of the European Commission to act in the interests of the union as a whole.
It is no secret that some member states have felt aggrieved by the arrangement - but that is rather the point. Cooperation between countries is about realising an ambition greater than would be achieved individually, avoiding the need to move at the pace of the slowest member. Many fear that the new 2030 package, the broad shape of which was agreed in October last year, is a step back. Through threats of veto, various member states extracted concessions that add up to a watered down version of the political agreement.
Under the new framework, renewables policy will have a decidedly less European and more national flavour. The legal standing that made the 2020 targets so potent has been ruled out in favour of a softer system of governance based on benchmarking and reporting. The so-called open method of coordination is a mainstay of EU cooperation in some social and economic policy areas. But how effective it has been remains an open question.
Those in favour of wind energy are right to be disappointed. A less ambitious target for renewables with an apparently weaker enforcement mechanism at a time when the grand vision of a unified energy market is being ripped asunder by national subsidy schemes for fossil capacity is, without doubt, a setback.
The wind business can wish for a top-down European renewables framework all it likes. But member states have made it abundantly clear that the future of renewables policy at the EU level will be based on principles of governance with greater ability for countries to dodge their commitments.
As an almost infinitely scalable, clean, domestic and mature energy source, wind energy in Europe still makes sense, but the way that we think about it in Europe must change. The days of growth driven by the blunt instrument of direct revenue support are numbered. The future of the wind industry hinges on its ability to play to its strengths. As well as driving down costs, renewables need to play their role in balancing and strengthening electricity grids. As pointed out in an earlier column (Windpower Monthly, November 2014), wind can provide networks with a lot more than just energy.
Amid the gloom, there are reasons to be cheerful. The European Commission is finally planning some serious investment in an attempt to revive Europe's ailing economies. Used wisely, commission president Jean Claude Juncker's €315 billion could help to physically connect all of Europe's power systems.
The discussion about wind energy is no longer focused on arcane policy debates about the merits of this quota system or that feed-in tariff. They are about deciding what to do about the dismally failing emissions trading system, completing the internal market and making sure that Europe's energy system fully values the role renewables can play.
There is a long way to go until the implementation of the 2030 framework, and the details matter. We need a governance system that strikes the right balance between flexibility, credibility and enforcement and avoid "lowest common denominator" outcomes.
European founding father Jean Monnet foresaw that "Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises". There can be little doubt that 2015 will be a testing year for European wind energy. But the ingenuity that saw Europe lead the world in wind technology and policy and wind's undeniable benefits are enough to ensure it prospers — as long as it adjusts to the new political and social reality in which it finds itself.
Oscar Fitch-Roy is a senior policy consultant in renewables at DNV GL and part of the University of Exeter's energy policy group