BRUSSELS, Belgium — It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of powering homes and factories with energy from wind, waves or the sun's rays was viewed as the pipedream of a few hippies and idealists.
But the hard-headed lobbyists representing the renewable energy industry in Europe these days has come a long way from that image of tree-hugging dreamers.
“The European renewable energy industry has an annual turnover of about 45 billion euros and employs 450,000 people,” said Christine Lins, general secretary of the European Renewable Energy Council.
EREC is an umbrella group for a series of associations representing what were once called “alternative energies.”
Although the associations sometimes work with environmental campaigners like Greenpeace, their membership includes industrial giants such as Electricite de France, Shell and Siemens.
Renewable energy these days is a big business that could be about to get a whole lot bigger if world leaders agree on a package to cut global warming at the U.N. climate change conference starting Dec. 7 in Copenhagen.
EREC has an annual budget of 850,000 euros ($1.3 million) and directly employs 10 people at its Brussels headquarters, which it shares with affiliate organisations such as the European Biomass Association and the European Ocean Energy Association. In total about 100 people work at the Renewable Energy House.
It is part of a vast lobbying community — some estimates put the total number of lobbyists at 15,000 — that has grown up in Brussels around the institutions of the European Union which are headquartered in the Belgian capital.
EREC seeks to influence European legislation to create "positive frameworks" for renewable energy and promote European technologies in the renewable sector. It hailed the EU's target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 30 percent by 2020 as a major success.
The umbrella group provides information and consultancy for political decision makers from local to international level as well as seeking to reach out to the international media and other opinion makers.
EREC also works as a forum for exchanges of information and promotes research on the development of renewable technology.
“We have some of our members that are the utilities, that not only run wind farms and concentrated solar thermic plants but also nuclear or coal power plants,” Lins said.
“We also see that more and more hydrocarbon companies are interested in biofuels because clearly they understand that their markets are limited and that they need to diversify in order to ensure the future of their companies.”
With the 27-nation European Union committed to producing a fifth of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, Lins said the sector could be generating 150 billion euros ($225 billion) in revenues and 2 million jobs across the EU a decade from now.
That could be just the beginning.
“It is absolutely feasible that we go far beyond the 20 percent,” she said.
“There are no limits. Now, there is a discussion going on about the new energy policy of the European Union until 2050, and there we clearly see that renewables can contribute up to 100 percent.”
Use of renewables has grown at a gale force pace in Europe over recent years. The level of electricity generated by wind power has been growing at over 15 percent a year since 2000; photovoltaic energy by over 60 percent; and biomass burning by over 14 percent, according to EREC data.
Europe already gets 10 percent of its energy from renewables, Lins said.
Globally the picture is less clear. The Paris-based International Energy Agency said fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas are expected to supply 77 percent of the new demand for energy up to 2030.
However, the IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook report released this month said renewables would be the fastest growing energy sector, rising from 2.5 percent of total power output in 2007 to 8.6 percent in 2030 — a figure that could increase three-fold with a global climate change deal.
“Renewable energy is an essential part of the future energy mix. We support that aim as a company with major investments in wind, solar and biofuels,” Tony Hayward, chief executive of the energy multinational BP, said in a speech to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last month.
“But the harsh reality is that as of today, all of the world's wind, solar, wave, tide and geothermal energy accounts for only around 1 percent of total consumption,” Hayward said, adding he expected that 80 percent of the world’s energy was still likely be from fossil fuels by in 2030.
The International Energy Agency’s report estimates that investments of $10.5 trillion would be needed in renewable energies in order to reach the target of limiting the global temperature increase to 2 Celsius. Even that colossal sum could be offset in savings in heating, transport and health bills, it says.
As the economic opportunities become clearer, Lins said European companies that have been in the forefront of developing renewable technologies are coming under pressure.
“Other parts of the world are really catching up very quickly,” she said. “The U.S., China, but also emerging markets like India. We really need to continue to invest in the sector to make sure that we keep the leadership.”
Setting an example, EREC has converted its 140-year-old Brussels’ headquarters into a showcase for the industry, getting its energy from an array of solar and photovoltaic panels, bore holes to produce geothermic power and boilers burning compacted wood dust from sawmills in the Ardennes forest.
The Renewable Energy House has become something of a tourist attraction, drawing more than 15,000 since its opening in 2006.