A Problem With Renewable Energy

In 2009, the European Union announced its ‘20-20-20’ strategy. What these numbers mean is that the member states of the Union should have 20% of their energy production from renewable sources, achieve a 20% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and an increase of 20% energy efficiency all by 2020. The first of the three goals is to be achieved through subsidies supporting green energy technology, buying renewable energy at preferential prices and a system of ‘green certificates’. Yet, there is another issue which needs to be addressed in this strategy.

It is a fact which is often forgotten that the electricity grid in Europe is old. This entails that it is not only wasteful, but also that it is constructed and configured to support the old methods of electrical production – coal, oil, gas and nuclear. These methods provide for a steady supply of electricity, managed by the national companies. Usually, production is increased at peak-demand hours such as the evening hours when most households use energy the most.

The difference with renewable energy sources is that they do not provide for a constant supply of electricity. Wind does not always blow continuously at the same speed and the Sun does not shine constantly (because of the existence of clouds). This means that energy companies have to adapt their production not only to peak-demand time but also to optimal supply conditions, making it harder to determine when and how much energy can be produced.

The above-mentioned fact about the age of the electricity grid is now posing a problem for producers and the ‘20-20-20’ program. If energy grids are not capable of supporting the variable supply of renewable energy methods, there will be problems such as blackouts or breaks in the grid itself. The European Union needs to address this by modernizing its connections and building a ‘smart grid’, which the United States has already begun investing in. As with many other cases, the question of infrastructure is looming up behind the question of development.

An example of this problem is the EU member state of Denmark. Around 25 years ago, the Danish decided to build an electricity system based on wind energy because of the abundance of this renewable resource. Then, in the early 1990’s, they realized that their electricity grid had a limit to how much it could carry from renewable resources. This led to the modernization of the network and subsequently to a huge increase in wind energy production. In 2007, 20% of electricity production in Denmark came from wind turbines. Another interesting fact is that in 2008, which was an especially windy year, the Danish energy companies decided that during very windy periods or at night, electricity would be free because they could not managed the huge supply.

Other member states of the EU should learn from this example. Countries like Spain, Germany and Bulgaria, who are investing heavily in wind and solar power projects would have to quickly adapt their energy grids to sustain these modes of production and the specificity which they come with. They should not wait until the problem manifests itself, but rather should move to prevent it from happening.

Whether the EU has the capacity to support such a large-scale project is irrelevant because it most certainly has the proper motivation. If the ‘20-20-20’ strategy is to be achieved, they should consider all aspects of the changes that are to be made. The intentions are good, but the actions taken to achieve their aims should be properly thought out as well.


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