EU power generators pledge carbon neutrality ‘well before 2050’

Increasing electrification in various sectors not only has the potential to reduce CO2, it also means more business for electric utilities. [Jan Arne Wold / © Statoil]

Under new leadership since last year, industry association Eurelectic has committed to making European power generation carbon neutral “well before 2050”. But getting agreement within the group remains difficult.

The heads of three major energy companies – Italy’s Enel, Sweden’s Vattenfall and Britain’s SSE – came to Brussels on Wednesday (6 December) to outline a vision for the European electricity industry for the next three decades.

According to them, electricity is the key to a low-carbon European future. They presented a headline goal of getting to zero net carbon emissions from power generation within the next 30 years, and hopefully even earlier.

They also presented a plan for electrifying more parts of our daily life – areas such as transport and heating, which have until now been powered by fossil fuels.

New electrification alliance seeks top billing in EU’s decarbonisation efforts

Industry groups representing sectors as varied as wind and solar power, fuel cell batteries, copper and heat pumps, have clubbed together to launch the Electrification Alliance, with the hope that electricity will be recognised as the main energy carrier in Europe’s decarbonisation drive.

The three CEOs are members of the Brussels-based industry association Eurelectric, which is making the pledge on behalf of its 3,500 European member companies in power generation, distribution and supply.

“We have reached a point in Eurelectric where we needed to be explicit about the visions we want to share with energy stakeholders,” said Francesco Starace, Eurelectric president and CEO of Italian energy group Enel.

“Electricity is at the point of becoming a much more important part of [Europe’s] energy portfolio. Technology is bringing electricity to lower and lower carbon levels.”

The headline goal of becoming carbon neutral by “well before” 2050 (the association won’t set an exact date) means that the sector will release no net carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and any emissions it does emit will be counteracted by carbon offsetting – saving carbon emissions elsewhere.

It is a goal they first set in 2009, but it is now being fleshed out and delivered earlier.

Starace said they will be “decarbonising from the electricity generation point”, meaning that they will not rely on as-yet-unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which could sequester carbon and store it underground, to meet the goal.

It is an eye-catching goal. But perhaps more important is the electricity sector’s ambitious plan to gain footholds in new sectors. This is a plan driven by its new secretary-general, Kristian Ruby.

A change in direction

Ruby’s appointment in November 2016 followed a bitter struggle to determine the future of the organisation. Ruby, a member of the executive management team at the renewables industry association WindEurope, was appointed as secretary-general in a clear signal of a new focus.  It was a controversial decision with some of Eurelectric’s members.

Ruby has charted a course for a clean energy focus for the organisation during his first year. In April, Ruby announced that the association had convinced their national energy company members from all countries except Poland and Greece to sign up to a pledge that they will build no new coal-fired power plants after 2020.

The end of coal: EU energy companies pledge no new plants from 2020

Companies from every EU nation except Poland and Greece sign up to initiative in bid to meet Paris pledges and limit effects of climate change. A report from EURACTIV’s media partner, The Guardian.

Meanwhile, the association continues its push to increase electrification in other sectors like transport and heating and the interest isn’t altruistic – it’s business.

Increasing electrification in various sectors not only has the potential to reduce CO2, it also means more business for electric utilities. Speeding up that transition is the real focus of the vision unveiled on Wednesday.

“What can electricity do for the future of our society?” asked Starace. “We want to push electricity into new segments of human activity.”

As president since June, Starace has also been at the forefront of pushing the clean energy vision. “We have to quickly decarbonise electricity so that the argument of the internal combustion engine becomes obsolete,” he told EURACTIV in an interview in October.

“As soon as electric cars are no longer driven by coal-based electricity but renewables, this argument doesn’t hold. So, on cars, the first step for us is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.”

Eurelectic is calling for more policy incentives to build the infrastructure required to support electric cars, and for heating and cooling systems to be connected to power plants.

EU power utility boss: ‘Coal is finished, the hard question now is gas’

Apart from Poland, there are no plans to build new coal-fired power plants in Europe, says Francesco Starace. The hard question today is instead who will build a new gas power plant. “And many companies are not doing that either,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Internal wrangling

The association’s clean power push has not come without plenty of internal wrangling behind the scenes. Eurelectric has members from all over Europe, some of whom are quite advanced in renewables, others who are largely reliant on coal.

The geographic divide between companies from the North, which has more renewables, and the East and South, which has less, has been particularly stark.

Claude Turmes, a Green MEP from Luxembourg, says he has seen Eurelectric “moving in the right direction” over the past year. “But in these umbrella organisations, the train must be careful not to lose the last wagon.”

As with all EU-wide industry associations, the message often has to be tailored to the least-ambitious voice. The only alternative is to issue statement excluding certain members, as was the case with the coal phase-out, which did not include Poland.

Think tank: Coal crisis, not climate policy, is forcing Polish energy overhaul

The unfolding crisis in the coal sector is leaving Poland with a looming power generation gap which is forcing decision-makers to reconsider the country’s energy mix. But politicians have until now delayed hard decisions and a transparent debate about it, says Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera.

But this is not desirable and wasn’t necessary for today’s vision statement.

“It was not as difficult as it might appear, the industry understood that this is not a threat,” Starace said of today’s consensus. “Electricity can be decarbonised faster and with less cost than any other thing. The more we decarbonise, the more electricity will be used. It’s a virtuous circle.”

“We started this discussion in June and ended in November – it took us five months,” he said.

For his part, Ruby expressed satisfaction that the entire sector supports the vision, but added that he understands the challenges faced by some of their members.

“The commitment and ambition expressed in this vision are challenging, especially for regions which depend on high carbon value chains,” he said. “We therefore call on policymakers to do their utmost to ensure a fair and responsible transition, both socially and geographically.”

The association says it plans to launch several projects in the coming year for partnerships with other sectors. But some of the more reluctant members may need more coaxing to come along on the journey.

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