Three reasons to repurpose the Energy Union

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New gasfield discoveries always make headlines, when will renewable energy, like geothermal, be afforded the same attention? [Lydur Skulason/Flickr]

The Energy Union is great on paper, but so far the European Commission has failed to provide it with a modern, engaging vision. Eckart Würzner sees three key reasons why the executive should do so and how it can achieve it.

Dr. Eckart Würzner is the mayor of Heidelberg and president of Energy Cities.

It has been a month since the UK’s vote to leave the EU sent political shockwaves across and beyond the continent. Much doom and gloom has been spread since about the prospects of European disintegration while others see opportunities for renewed impetus.

Few people thought Brexit would actually happen. Now it has, the road ahead seems unambiguous: the pressing need to inject some new form of legitimacy and purpose into the European project is an undisputed fact. The question is, what kind of reform will be the game changer?

As a mayor, in direct touch with the daily concerns of citizens, I am convinced that energy is the one policy area that holds the promise of simultaneously revolutionising all others. As it happens, current Commission’s flagship European integration project is on precisely that.

Legitimacy

Closely linked to the migration crisis, the Brexit decision is partly the result of people’s fears of being deprived of something, be it jobs, housing or welfare, and more generally the anxieties of living in an unstable social and economic climate. Since the EU did not manage to adequately deliver on its long-standing – and treaty-embedded – promise of providing greater social and economic cohesion, it is now facing one of the biggest crises in its history.

There are multiple ways in which a reformed Energy Union project could address this legitimacy gap. Democratising energy ownership and control would bring tremendous socio-economic benefits across European territories. Community energy projects are known for fostering public acceptance of renewable energy infrastructure. But above all, every euro invested in such grassroots initiatives drives additional economic activity within EU territories, through local jobs and investments.

At present, talks around the Energy Union have provided zero room for supporting such locally- anchored projects, and are instead solely focused on the completion of a huge, interconnected gas and electricity market. While this is important, this narrow angle will not bring the kind of better-distributed economic progress Europeans are entitled to wish for.

Compared to their fossil equivalents, renewable energy resources have the advantage of being more evenly spread across and within countries bringing the hopeful prospect of “energy emancipation”. In parallel, the resource-sharing dimension of community energy schemes also holds the potential to create new links between people, fostering understanding and tolerance in a more open and collaborative society.

Leadership

After all, democratic values remain the founding principles of the European project, this focus on participatory energy governance could put Europe back at the forefront of climate action, a position it has relinquished to other world powers such as China, where investments are soaring while they are declining in the old continent.

A new form of closer-to-the-people and closer-to-the-resources leadership must emerge. Luckily, it will not have to be built from scratch, as some 7,000 mayors have already voluntarily committed to such a vision through the Covenant of Mayors.

However, our Covenant cannot remain a side instrument of the EU climate policy. It must force its way into the high stake Energy Union process through a rotating representation of engaged mayors, with stronger political clout and devolved powers to influence the content of national energy strategies and EU Council meetings. Macro policies at national level rarely link energy issues with social ones.

Prosperity

The Commission often champions the need for “diversification”. But beyond the urge to swiftly change suppliers (from Russia to the Caspian Sea or Maghreb countries), the time has come to look at diversification in the sense of relying increasingly on local, resilient sources of energy.

This would not only shield Europe from geopolitical turbulence, it would set the stage for an industrial renaissance, harnessing the immense variety of energy resources, technologies and know-how from all of Europe’s regions and territories. The discovery of new gas fields never fails to make headlines. When will we start paying similar attention to the millions of untapped opportunities form biomass, geothermal, wind, solar, heat, waste and so forth?

Beyond the need to “democratise” the Energy Union project and to “devolve” powers to local authorities, my third and last “D” is a call to “divest” capital flows towards a truly diverse economy. This means diverting national and EU funding streams from macro infrastructure projects – often carbon intensive or fossil fuel-driven – to the local energy transition, with a solid pipeline of projects already off the shelf, not least from the almost 5,000 action and investment roadmaps that have been developed via the Covenant of Mayors.

Over six months have passed since the COP 21 delivered the conclusion that a new, more inclusive, energy culture is needed. The Energy Union is the EU’s unique opportunity to make it happen and provide a new meaning to a historic vision of being “united in diversity”.