The European Union (EU) has the reputation of a bureaucracy awash in red tape. Yet when it comes to wind power, and above all onshore wind, its policies over the last decade have proven enormously effective getting this precocious branch of business in Europe on its feet – and even booming.

Despite an ongoing economic crisis, Europe’s wind power industry has flourished as few others, not least as a consequence of the EU targets, national action plans, and other framework regulation including carbon pricing.

A quick look at the advances of the wind power industry in the EU speaks volumes. Just this year EU countries reached the milestone of 100 gigawatt of wind power capacity. This is the equivalent energy production of 39 nuclear power plants or burning 72 million tons of coal. It accounts for over 7 percent of the EU’s entire supply of electricity, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) based in Brussels.

“It took the European wind energy sector some twenty years to get the first 10 GW grid connected,” said Christian Kjaer, CEO of EWEA. “It only needed 13 years to add an additional 90 GW. Half of the total European wind power capacity has been installed over the past six years.” The EWEA estimates that European wind farms generate enough electricity in a single year to meet the total consumption of 57 million households.

Germany, Spain, and the UK are the EU’s market leaders. Germany trails only China and the U.S. worldwide in terms of wind power capacity with over 30 gigawatts – almost exclusively from onshore sources. Wind power accounts for 11 percent of Germany’s total electricity needs, while contributing over 17% of the total electricity demand in Spain and 26 percent in Denmark. Denmark and the UK are among the few countries that have successfully tapped offshore wind potential.

For more on German renewable energy, read more here. For more on Danish renewable energy, watch a video on Breaking Energy here.

“Despite only utilizing a tiny fraction of Europe’s vast domestic wind energy resources, wind power is having a substantial impact on Europe’s energy security and environment, and benefits us hugely in creating green jobs and technology exports”, said Kjaer.

No Easy Accomplishment

Wind power’s success in Europe didn’t come easy. A decade ago fossil fuel and nuclear-oriented utilities ruled the European market – and waged stiff resistance to newcomers like wind and solar. Many of the European power markets, like Germany’s, were virtual monopolies with either state-owned utilities or ,as in Germany, a handful of giant companies dominating the market. It was at the EU’s bequest that liberalization commenced in 1998 slowly bringing changes that have since then transformed Europe’s market. The EU was also one of the driving forces behind the Kyoto Protocol and other climate change mitigation schemes that prioritize renewables; it continues to play a major role in international efforts to come to a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

The most important pieces of EU legislation were EU directives in 2001 and 2009. The former supported schemes to compensate clean energy for its environmental advantages and its contribution to supply security, as well as easing the way for installing new plants. Eight years later, the 2009 law made the EU’s 2020 targets legally binding. National Renewable Energy Action Plans set out how each EU country is to meet its overall national target and each country reports on progress every two years.

The 2020 targets stipulate that EU countries should have 20% of their energy supply renewable, a 20% reduction in carbon emissions, and 20% reduction in overall energy usage by 2020.

According to the National Renewable Energy Action Plans, 34% of the EU’s total electricity consumption will come from renewable energy sources, with wind energy expected to meet 14% of consumption in 2020. Moreover, other support mechanisms and the EU’s single market law also played critical roles.

“Ambitious targets are at the core of the EU’s policies to promote energy from renewable sources,” concluded the EWEA in a report this year. “Due to the early adoption of ambitious national and EU targets, European companies are world leaders in wind power technology, and have a leading share of the world market.”

National Plans Show Variety

In different countries, of course, the impact of the overarching EU targets and plans has been different. In Germany, for example, EU legislation was much more important for biofuels than for wind and solar, which relied on progressive national legislation. “The EU’s regulatory framework had a tremendous impact on biofuels,” explains Dr. Ferdi Schüth, director of the Max Planck Institute for Kolhnenforschung. “But for wind and solar the key was Germany’s Renewable Energy Law of 2000.”

Yet both the EU executive [the Commission] and wind power allies worry that momentum could be lost unless ambitious targets for 2030 and beyond are set. Many countries, including Germany, Demark, and Sweden, have already surpassed the 20 percent renewable mark in their electricity supplies. In order “to maintain robust growth beyond 2020,” stated the European Commission earlier this year, “a supportive policy framework will be needed”.

The mood in the EU at the moment though is not one conducive to ambitious, expensive new targets. The wind power sector, however, is now on its feet and not looking back.

This piece appears on Breaking Energy as part of the Energy Transparency series in partnership with Vestas.