Countries in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria – lag other European countries when it comes to renewables rollout. While the region covers roughly 20% of the EU population and territory, as well as 17% of the EU’s electricity demand, it only accounts for 7% and 12% of EU wind and solar capacity, respectively, according to new research from climate think tank Ember. 

Ember’s researchers point out that Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Czechia and Poland represent the five countries across Europe with the least ambitious national renewable electricity targets according to their 2021–2030 national energy and climate plans, aiming for an average of just 20% renewable power in 2030.

“A large part of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have fallen asleep in the deployment of renewable energy,” Stepan Chalupa, chair of the Czech Renewable Energy Chamber, said in the report, which argues that CEE’s response to the energy crisis, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has “lacked the drive to move away from the fundamental problem of fossil fuel reliance”. 

CEE’s “hesitant approach to wind and solar deployment, combined with continued high reliance on fossil fuels”, is “posing a threat to the region’s energy security, increasing the cost of living and reducing the competitiveness of economies”, says Ember, which notes that the “only major announcement” to come from the region since the invasion is from Estonia, which is now targeting 100% renewable power in 2030.

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CEE’s potential to rapidly accelerate its rollout of renewables was a key theme of the 2023 CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, which took place earlier this month in Prague. The conference, attended by Energy Monitor, was organised by the International Sustainable Finance Centre, a not-for-profit think tank. 

During a keynote speech at the summit’s “sustainability in energy” day, Ember senior analyst Pawel Czyzak argued – citing the think tank’s research, which was published to coincide with the event – that the CEE region could deliver 200 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar power by 2030, reaching a 63% share of renewables in electricity generation by 2030, compared to just 25% in 2022.

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Czyzak noted that this would lead to a 29% reduction in the cost of wholesale electricity prices, and the region would have a “huge energy surplus, and shift from importing electricity to being [energy] exporters”. Conversely, if CEE countries fail to accelerate wind and solar deployment and stick to current plans, they will be forced to import 34 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2030, a five-fold increase from 2022. 

Nevertheless, a faster and more expansive deployment of cheap renewables in neighbouring countries, along with the implementation of policies in Ember’s ‘ambitious’ scenario, leads the think tank to project that by 2030, CEE countries will be exporting 23GW of electricity to other countries.

Ember models three potential scenarios for the CEE’s adoption of renewables for 2030. The first is based on current national energy and climate plans, representing the least ambitious scenario. The second, its ‘baseline’ scenario, takes either the highest value of wind and solar capacities in each country’s most recent target announcements, their national energy and climate plans, or forecasts extrapolated from the industry (SolarPower Europe’s low scenario in the case of solar and WindEurope’s central scenario in the case of wind). 

Finally, its ‘ambitious’ scenario uses ‘high’ industry forecasts that show the benefits of accelerated wind and solar deployment, while keeping other technology capacities the same. Ember notes that the ‘ambitious’ capacities should be understood as “realistic with current technologies and conditions”, with for example additional policy support to enable shorter permitting times and better grid access – a major barrier to renewables expansion.

Czyzak argues that a push for renewables would make Central Eastern Europe both “more secure, but also more competitive”. Additionally, setting renewables targets in line with EU climate policy would “open the door to more financing from the EU”, he says. More specially, as detailed in the report, this could unlock €136bn in EU funding for CEE’s energy transition from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Just Transition Fund and Modernisation Fund

Also speaking at the CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson said that although “people think [the CEE region] is a bit of a desert for wind energy, [the truth is] far from it”, noting that wind already comprises more than 10% of all of the electricity consumed in Poland, Lithuania, Croatia and Romania. “Wind makes sense” across the region, he said, even if wind speeds are not “as good as in the North Sea”.

Dickson added that while countries such as Hungary are focused on shifting further towards nuclear energy, others like Poland – which was ranked as the third biggest solar market in the EU in SolarPower Europe's latest market outlook – are aiming for a mixture of nuclear and renewables.

Ember’s report notes that since the region spans a range of geographies and climates, “there is scope for huge growth in renewables”, with the Baltic and Black Seas displaying high potential for offshore wind, whereas central and southern regions are rich in solar resources

CEE countries could increase wind and solar capacity by 600% by 2030, aiming for 196GW by 2030, up from 35GW in 2022, the think tank suggests.

The analysis finds that with an ambitious wind and solar buildout, some CEE countries could triple their share of renewables in electricity generation by 2030. Momentum is building, with CEE wind and solar capacity growing by around 28% last year – nearly twice the EU-wide average of 15%.

Nevertheless, the region – along with Europe more broadly – must overcome a number of issues. Dickson identified four key policy challenges for a faster wind buildout: slow permitting; a lack of investment in wind power; a lack of investment in the grid; and finally, the need to strengthen the wind industry supply chain

Dickson was confident too, however, that a series of recent proposals from the EU, including the re-design of European electricity markets and the EU’s Green Industrial Plan – a response to the US Inflation Reduction Act – will make a difference. 

According to Ember, the future of renewables in CEE depends on collaboration between these countries.

He says: “Only cross-country collaboration can unlock the region’s over 100GW of offshore wind potential. Accelerating existing and discussed interconnection projects allows for better integration of wind and solar, reducing electricity curtailment and power prices.”