Estonia reaching the goal of renewable electricity generation meeting the full consumption demand by 2030, which would require a tripling of production in less than six years, is looking doubtful the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) finds.
Among other things, this means the position of nuclear energy in Estonia's future plans and in relation to renewables needs to be considered.
The National Audit Office reports that while the ministry of climate and the ministry of regional affairs and agriculture have accelerated the process of setting up wind farms to some extent, these measures will not significantly speed up the planning and environmental impact assessment procedures which have already started and which will have the greatest impact on the goal set for 2030.
The ministry of climate must therefor find and implement workable measures to ensure that new wind farm plans and environmental impact assessments are processed quickly and without excessive administrative burden, and to minimize the risk of litigation, the audit office says.
Speaking about the situation, Auditor General Janar Holm said: "It's extremely important to look at wind energy not as a thing or an end in itself, but in the context of Estonia's electricity production and consumption as a whole."
"The objective of creating more renewable energy capacity may seem unreasonable when considered in isolation, out of context and in a narrow sense, unless parallel efforts are made to develop storage capacity, increase the capacity of the power grid and create export incentives, because if the national target were met, or even if it were close to being met, Estonia would have several times more renewable energy generation capacity than the projected peak demand," Holm added.
"Furthermore, the place nuclear energy will have in Estonia's energy portfolio in the future should be carefully analyzed and decided in the near future when setting and implementing renewable energy targets," the auditor general added.
The ministry of climate is a newly created ministry which started work in July last year, largely replacing the ministry of the environment, which no longer exists.
The climate ministry on some of the responsibilities, mainly relating to wind energy, formerly under the auspices of the ministry of economic affairs and communications, which otherwise continues to function.
The climate ministry has also taken on some tasks formerly performed by the ministry of finance, as has the ministry of regional affairs and agriculture. The latter is also a newly created ministry.
In 2022, the Riigikogu adopted an amendment to the Energy Sector Organization Act, which sets as a target the volume of renewable energy produced by 2030 comprising at least 100 percent the total final electricity consumption (i.e leaving room for a surplus).
In 2022, renewable electricity accounted for 32 percent of the electricity consumed in Estonia, leaving over two-thirds of consumption still to be met wholly by renewables in the following eight years.
In the meantime, the audit office notes, no major wind farms have been added in Estonia in the last decade.
Although other renewable sources, notably solar power, can also be used in Estonia, wind energy is considered to have the highest potential as a source of renewable energy here and in this region as a whole.
And yet, the audit office notes, it is only in the last few years that steps have been taken to remove obstacles and simplify processes when speeding up the construction of wind farms (details from the saga from several years ago surrounding a private sector wind farm development at Aidu in eastern Estonia were particularly numerous – ed.).
The National Audit Office has highlighted a number of problems and risks that continue to hold back the development of onshore wind farms and in turn make the achievement of the renewable electricity target doubtful.
These include the length of planning and environmental impact assessment proceedings and problems with connection to the grid.
The ministry of climate, however, unlike the audit office, considers the target achievable and is optimistic, the audit office goes on.
Janar Holm also noted that since neighboring countries have roughly the same suitability for wind energy, inter-connectedness with those countries, while it will mean that Estonian renewable electricity can be exported, the reverse is equally the case.
Furthermore, Holm noted, if this chain of connections does not continue on and on into other countries, it could even be the case, during peak production times, that due to a lack of storage capacity, some turbines may have to stand idle – just when the wind is at its strongest.
This and potentially too generous incentives to firms to enter into the renewables sector could also lead to price increases being passed on to the consumer, Holm added.
"In the coming years, major developments in energy will have to be tackled in parallel across the whole diversity of the energy system in terms of various sources, networks, interconnections and storage," the auditor general went on.
The audit office recommends that the ministry of regional affairs and agriculture, in cooperation with the parties involved, resolve the practical issues in the planning and environmental impact assessment procedures that cause confusion, waste the time of local authorities and slow down the proceedings.
In order to make the environmental impact assessment of wind farms more efficient and faster and to enable the identification of suitable areas for wind farms, the National Audit Office recommends that the ministry of climate, in cooperation with the Environmental Board, impact assessment experts and experts in various fields, agree on the limits of acceptable negative environmental impacts and the most important impacts to be assessed, as well as the assessment methodologies.
Also, the information on studies carried out and data on environmental monitoring and follow-up must be brought together to the same place to speed up environmental assessment proceedings.
Estonia's success in meeting the renewable energy target will depend on how the measures that have been initiated are implemented and what additional measures the ministry of climate implements in the coming years. Not all of the measures planned so far have been launched.
According to the forecasts from grid distributor Elering, electricity consumption in 2030 will come to around 9.4 TWh.
8.2 TWh of electricity was consumed in Estonia in 2022, the audit office says. Meanwhile, 2.624 GWh of renewable electricity was generated, accounting for 32 percent of the total electricity consumed.
The largest share of renewable electricity came from biomass (including waste incineration): 1,372 GWh. 664 GWh of wind energy was generated, along with 560 GWh of solar energy and 28 GWh from other sources (mainly biogas and hydro), the audit office says.
A total of 31 local authorities in Estonia (from a total of 79) are planning wind farms. For this purpose, there have been 20 general plans designating wind development areas drawn up, along with 23 designated spatial plans of local authorities.
Height restrictions on wind turbines to protect the operation of national defense structures (radars), which was the main sticking point in the case of the Aidu wind farm, had been established on approximately 70 percent of the territory of Estonia as of the end of 2023.
Almost €32 million has been earmarked for support to accelerate the development of renewable energy under the EU Recovery and Resilience Plan REPowerEU. The eligibility period of the support will last until the end of the Q1 2026.
The full, lengthy report from the National Audit Office is available here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte