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For once, Europe's political leaders took the sceptics by surprise. Against the odds they voted for binding targets -- mandates -- for the proportion of renewable energy that each member country of the EU must comply with. The overall goal agreed on last month is for 20% of Europe's energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, up from about 7% today. Compared with what comes next, that was the easy bit. The hard part, setting each national target and deciding just how it is to be met, is to come. The European Commission will kick-off this tortuous procedure with a blueprint already by the autumn. Crucial to the whole process will be agreement on how to effectively penalise any country not on target.

Of any single technology, and ignoring the surprisingly high expectations of biomass for heating, the main responsibility for meeting the 2020 goal rests with the wind industry, if for no other reason than it has the greatest resource at its disposal proven to be commercially exploitable. The broad assumption is that electricity (chief among carbon emission sinners) will continue to account for about 34% of primary energy use, with heating and transport making up the remainder. To reach the 2020 goal, renewables will need to provide 35% of all electricity, according to various studies. Today, renewable energy is on track to provide 19% of Europe's electricity by 2010, mainly from large hydro.

At first glance the task of getting from here to 2020 looks like a tough one. The large and small hydro resource is more or less used up and wind today only contributes to meeting 3-4% of electricity demand, the other renewables a lot less. The Commission's division of the renewables cake in 2020 gives hydro a 32% slice; in a wet year it is already achieving that. Biomass is to provide 17% and biogas 7%. But they are limited resources. After a fast ramp up, with the Commission banking on growth rates of 20-21% for each to get to its 2010 target (graph page 58), their plotted growth to 2020 falls to 9% for biogas and just 4.5% for biomass. The minor renewables, solar PV, solar thermal electric, tidal, wave and geothermal, are expected to contribute 7%, from a barely visible starting point. That leaves 37% of renewables electricity coming from wind power in 2020.

It is not an ambitious target, far from it. All it requires is for wind to supply 13% of Europe's total electricity needs, 269 TWh onshore and 160 TWh offshore, generated by about 165,000 MW of capacity -- up from a little under 50,000 MW today. At that level, the target barely scratches the surface of the resource potential: it would require a halving of wind's growth over the past five years; it would trigger no more than a minimal increase in existing requirements for reserve generation; and it makes Denmark, with 20% wind power today and heading for 50%, look positively foolish.

Here is another way of looking at it. In its first decade of rapid growth, the wind industry installed 10,000 MW in Europe. In the next seven years to 2007 it added 40,000 MW. Even if the entire market stagnated today and offshore wind power sunk as a pipe-dream, wind would still reach 130,000 MW in the 13 years to 2020. The more likely scenario is for continued growth, currently running at 18% in Europe and 25% globally. Even scaling down the European rate by a third to 12% would deliver over 200,000 MW by 2020 producing about 25% more electricity than the Commission suggests.

What it would take

Wind power, it seems, is so successful that it is politically incorrect to point that fact out. Accelerating its growth is not even on the cards. Instead, it is bundled together with a group of far-from commercial technologies under a "renewables" umbrella too small for it to fit under. Much hue and cry has come from the renewables lobby in Brussels about the lack of separate targets for the contribution of renewables to each energy sector: electricity, transport and heating. For wind power that could be a blessing in disguise. Who is to say that electricity will still be supplying 34% of primary energy in 2020? Given its head, wind power produced in excess of demand for electricity could be heating water and charging electric cars by then.

Two key requirements are identified by the Commission for wind to attract the investment needed to realise its full potential: electricity networks developed primarily with wind power in mind and a single European market free of barriers at every border. The first requires removing responsibility for the wires away from wind power's direct competitors, fossil fuel and nuclear. To judge by the latest abysmal effort on that front (page 62), tough political action is needed now.

The second requires a whole new approach, one the Commission is already warming up for: an energy tax with big environmental teeth that would effectively provide a floor-price for trade of carbon emission allowances as well as a nasty penalty for countries not meeting their renewables goals. As the EU's tax commissioner Lásló Kováks argued last month, emissions trading, green taxes and targeted subsidies are a far more flexible and cost effective approach than the traditional "catch all" subsidy programs so favoured by heads of government. If Kováks wins the argument for a tax shift, just watch wind fly. You'll need to be on Concorde.

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