“Follow the trendlines, not the headlines”, Bill Clinton once said. He may not – no certainly – does not believe this too much. But as a piece of guidance it is rather wise.
Here is what the headlines will tell you about renewable energy in Europe. There is a renewable energy revolution in Europe and this is being led by wind and solar.
First, there is nothing meriting the term “revolution” going on in EU energy. A simple comparison makes this clear. In 1990, Britain got 0% of its electricity from natural gas. By 2000, this had reached 40%. Wind and solar are not growing this fast anywhere in Europe. Growth of natural gas power plants in Britain in the 1990s was about 4 times greater than the last decade of growth of Germany wind and solar put together. Keep that in mind the next time you read dubious headlines about the growth of German renewables.
Second, the idea that wind and solar are leading the growth of renewables in Europe has little to do with reality. In fact, it is biomass, the burning of wood and converted crops, that is leading the growth of renewable energy in Europe. For whatever reason, this fact is more or less never mentioned. But, as I discussed here, after over a century of being in constant decline, biomass is now seeing a full flung renaissance in the EU.
European consumption of biomass roughly halved in the twentieth century, as shown in the graph above which uses data from Fernandez et al. (2007). Remarkably, it has already doubled this century. A century of declines has been reversed in a decade.
And the proportion of the EU’s renewable energy that comes from biomass has stayed remarkably similar, at around two thirds, throughout the last decade. This occurred despite total renewable energy doubling. So around two thirds of the growth in renewables has been in biomass.
Further, this is not mostly modern biofuels, things like corn ethanol or biogas. 71% of biomass is what the EU classifies as “solar biomass”, in other words wood. This means that 45% of EU renewables is wood and wood consumption has increased by 60% since 2002.
The EU is now importing so much wood from America that American scientists are calling on the US government to intervene and reconsider its status as carbon-neutral.
This may soon become the elephant in the room. The EU’s expansion of renewables has been driven far more by biomass than most recognise, and this expansion of biomass may not be reducing CO2 emissions as much as official inventories will tell you.
Note on data
Statistics are taken from Eurostat’s latest data release. The EU reports production of renewable energy in tonnes of oil equivalent. However, there are a number of different ways to calculate this, as I discussed here. For wind and solar, the EU uses the “physical energy content” method. Biomass is reported as the energy content of the fuel. We could spend a day arguing over the wisdom of this, but I am rather busy.