Wind energy is an attractive alternative to fossil fuels

Wind energy is an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. It is plentiful, renewable,widely distributed, clean and produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Europe is a global leader in wind energy. In 2009, it accounted for five of the top ten wind suppliers and it held a 46 % share of globally installed wind energy capacity. In the same year, wind represented 39 % of all new power capacity in Europe, up from 36% in 2008 and leading new capacity for the second year in a row. Onshore wind energy is a mature technology. Currently, R&D is primarily focused on maximising the value of wind energy and on taking the technology offshore, where public opinion is more supportive of new wind farm installations.


The rotors of wind turbines (WT) transform the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical energy, and then into electricity. Wind turbines are normally grouped together in wind farms in order to obtain economies of scale. The main technological development in recent years is a trend towards ever larger wind turbines. Since the first commercial WT in the 1980s, WT size has evolved from 0.022 MW to multi-MW machines of about 6 MW today. For this to be achieved, rotor diameters grew from 10 m to stabilise at around 100 m in 2004. Larger machines are installed nowadays because of a booming offshore wind market.

Currently, the average turbine size in the EU is around 2 MW onshore and 3.3 MW offshore. By 2030, average turbine sizes of 3 MW and 10 MW are expected for onand offshore respectively, with offshore wind farms likely measured in GW. This recent scaling-up of turbine size is driven primarily by the move to take wind technology offshore. Due to land-use constraints, there are more suitable sites offshore than onshore, and wind speeds are higher away from land, leading to more wind energy generation.

Larger wind turbines lead to new challenges in the field of load control and turbine construction materials. While offshore sites require increased technological focus on foundations and materials adapted to the marine environment. The further deployment of wind farms will also need to be accompanied by developments in storage technologies and increased grid flexibility in order to be able to accommodate increasing levels of wind energy in the electricity network. The speed of the tip of the rotor blade is limited by acoustic noise, operating at reduced speed in noise-sensitive areas, but above 80 m/s can be acceptable for offshore machines.

Ongoing research

Research and development (R&D) in the wind sector is dominated by industry, which accounts for 75% of total investment. Corporate and public investments are highest in EU Member States where there is a large wind industry with significant market share in energy generation. This primarily includes Germany, Denmark and Spain. Other Member States such as the UK also dedicate a substantial budget effort to increase their wind energy share, especially through ambitious offshore wind energy generation plans.

Wind, as a technology in the SET-Plan, has a considerable share of national R&D investments, both in terms of public support and in the number of demonstration activities. Germany, Denmark, Spain and the UK together accounted for some 90% of EU aggregated funds. Other Member States, such as Italy, Sweden and France, are also heavily investing in wind energy research.

Corporate R&D investments in wind energy increased by more than 20% to €292 million in 2007 while public national funds showed a small decrease of 7%. Total EU research investments in 2007 reached €383 million. SETIS estimates an R&D intensity for the wind sector of 2.6 – 3.0%, which is considerably above the low R&D intensities of companies active in the electricity sector in general (0.6%) or oil and gas producers (0.3%). Funding should focus on large turbines, materials reduction, improved offshore installation vessels and other technological barriers. Better adaptation of power electronics to the marine environment is needed for offshore. New system concepts include experimental technologies, such as floating turbines (such as HyWind by StatoilHydro/Siemens and SWAY/AREVA-Multibrid) for deep waters, and less-developed concepts, such as airborne turbines (kite, balloon or auto gyros, including Magenn and MAGLEV) or the electrostatic generator (TU Delft).


Wind energy has two distinct market sectors: onshore wind, which includes both inland and coastal installations, and offshore wind which is installed away from the coast. There are large differences between offshore and onshore due to the different access and working environments. It is more difficult to install and maintain wind farms at sea.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), the investment in the 10.5 GW of new European wind installations was around €13 billion in 2009, of which €1.3 billion were invested in the 582 MW of turbines installed offshore. The wind market is affected by supply/demand imbalance and increases in raw material and component prices. Wind turbine prices, which were expected to continue in a downward trend through technological innovation, began to increase in 2004 and had risen by up to 40% by 2006. By 2008, they reached a high of 1 410 €/MW installed before dropping to 1 150€/MW in 2009. In spot-priced, wholesale electricity markets, zero-fuel-cost technologies, such as wind energy, reduce marginal costs. In periods when prices for fossil fuels are high, the resulting multiplying effect overcompensates for the subsidies that wind power receives.

Top European wind turbine manufacturers suffered a reduction in their global market share from 67% in 2007 to 58% in 2008 and to 46% in 2009. This is a trend that will likely continue as Chinese manufacturers continue to take advantage of their strong market growth.


The main obstacle to deploying wind energy is the high up-front capital cost, which makes wind electricity prices uncompetitive with conventional sources of energy at low fuel prices. From a system point of view, the main barrier to large-scale wind deployment is grid integration. Current electricity transmission and distribution systems have been designed and developed to manage more traditional generation technologies, and are not appropriate for large-scale wind penetration, whether centralised or distributed. Increasing shares of wind energy will require a new grid philosophy and operational procedures, and flexible, robust transmission and distribution grid infrastructures.

Technological challenges for wind energy include improved interconnections to the grid, as well as a better service to the grid in terms of support and quality of the electric signal. Barriers that need to be overcome in scaling up turbines include reducing the weight (and cost) of drive trains and the nacelle mass so that mechanical loads are reduced. Energy storage mechanisms to compensate for the fluctuating nature of wind generation will also be critical enablers for large-scale deployment.

Maintenance requirements and facilitating access are a challenge, particularly for offshore wind farms, which are inherently high risk installations. Offshore installations also need new, economic support structures, designed for waters with depths of more than 30 metres. Social barriers preventing energy uptake include the perception that wind farms spoil the landscape and a shortfall of trained, experienced staff, particularly for the expected growth in offshore development. The limitation of existing EU research facilities (both public and industry-housed), for testing wind technology at an appropriate (large) scale, and under relevant climatic conditions, poses a potential barrier to scaling up turbine sizes and to offshore deployment.


The conditions for wind energy operation need to be more fair and flexible in all Member States. Grid compliance comes at a cost and if grid codes were harmonised in Europe this cost would be reduced. Some Member States still have slow, cumbersome and expensive permit procedures. The EU should create an appropriate framework for the development and integration of the electricity grid to support renewable energy penetration. The reinforcement of grid interconnections and the facilitating of legal or institutional conditions for market integration are consistent with general EU energy policy and support the internal market. It is important to ensure the channelling of R&D support to the thousands of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) making up the component supply chain, to enable them to keep the required innovation pace and expand their manufacturing capacities.


Wind is expected to be one of the main contributors of electricity production from renewable sources (RES-E). The European Commission’s target of 40 GW installed capacity by 2010 was already achieved by 2005, while the wind industry’s target of 80 GW will be achieved this year. This capacity would produce 153 terawatt hours (TWh) on an average wind year.

Installed wind capacity has grown at an average rate of 28 % per year over the last few years. Today, installed wind capacity in the EU is contributing 4.6 % to European gross electricity consumption. The wind industry association, EWEA, has a 2020 target of 230 GW of installed capacity in Europe, including 40 GW offshore. By 2030, they predict an increase to 400 GW, of which 250 GW will be offshore, though this includes countries in the EEA, outside the EU-27.

SETIS forecasts for installed capacities of wind for the EU-27 are 230 GW in 2020 and 350 GW in 2030. This represents about 12 % and 15 % of projected EU gross electricity consumption by 2020 and 2030 respectively. Globally, the EU is one of the front-runners in innovation. Two-thirds of the global installed wind capacity is located in the EU, and five of the top ten wind turbine manufacturers are located in Europe, accounting for 46 % of the global market.

For further information:

European Wind Energy Technology Platform

European Wind Energy Association (EWEA)

SETIS Technology Information Sheet on wind energy