Oettinger pleads for energy network package

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Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, whose efficiency directive has been gutted by member states, yesterday (14 February) pleaded with Europe’s energy ministers to back his department’s remaining flagship, a €9.1-billion energy infrastructure package.

“I’m pleading with you not to come up with reservations but with general support that can be crucial to our generation,” an impassioned Oettinger told the ministerial roundtable in Brussels.

Europe’s electricity networks are currently stuck in “the world of 19th century principalities,” and without a rapid roll-out of energy transmission grids, “it will be the end of Europe,” Oettinger warned darkly.

“We have the euro crisis, the energy crisis, an economic crisis, and this continent – that means you and me – would no longer deserve to be taken seriously,” he said.

The EU’s energy infrastructure package, which was launched in October, broke new ground by earmarking money from the EU’s 2014-2020 budget for spending on energy transmission networks to connect Europe’s grid, and integrate renewables within it.

The grants would go as ‘seed money’ to projects such as north-south electricity grid interconnections, innovative energy storage projects, and an offshore grid in the North Sea to transport wind power across the continent. 

Austerity

Some EU countries complain that the cost of upgrading infrastructure at a time of austerity is too high, but Oettinger countered that the €9.1 billion earmark was a fraction of the EU’s 2014-2020 budget, and just 4.5% of the €200 billion needed for infrastructure spending by 2020.

“We can’t fail to negotiate the €9 billion that’s necessary, because €4 billion is not going to work,” he said. “You would be better doing the interconnections yourselves.”

Some member states are reluctant to take steps that would favour a perceived European interest above immediate national considerations, often phrased in the language of ‘subsidiarity,’ or devolution of powers to the smallest unit.

During the ministerial roundtable, the Czech Republic called for cost allocations to take into account countries benefiting from infrastructure projects.

The Czech energy minister also described proposals to limit planning appeals to three years as “far reaching” and a “transfer of powers from national bodies [that] we cannot support.”

Grid tsars

Under the EU’s proposals, a three-year deadline would be slapped on planning appeals – which have been known to drag on for decades – and ‘grids tsars’ would be created with the power to overrule infrastructure projects that meet with local objections.

Officials in Brussels are privately frustrated that member states which condemned Germany’s decision not to coordinate its move away from nuclear power should object to attempts to coordinate action on grid networks.

“We are sharing the same grids and electricity doesn’t know any national borders,” one source told EurActiv. “Whatever happens in one corner of the grid affects everyone else in Europe.”

A “cultural revolution” was needed to change mentalities away from a national to a collective self-interest, the official said. 

Positions: 

Greenpeace EU energy policy director Frauke Thies said: “EU energy ministers are discussing investments that blatantly ignore Europe’s long-term climate objectives. By prioritising fossil-fuel infrastructure they will be throwing money at the stranded assets of the future. They should focus instead on a stronger European electricity grid that channels a growing amount of clean renewables into the power system, makes the energy network more efficient and reduces costs.”

Timeline: 
  • 28 Feb.: Deadline for draft report of the European Parliament on the energy infrastructure package
  • 22 March: Deadline for tabling amendments to the draft report
  • March: ENTSO-E to launch first formal 10-year network development plan
  • 31 May: Vote on the draft report by the ITRE Committee
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