Sustainable infrastructure must be the core of the energy transition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: European Copper Institute

Anna-Maria Karjalainen is Director for Clean Energy Transition at European Copper Institute.

The consensus on the need for comprehensive action to mitigate climate change has never been stronger. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” are needed to keep anthropogenic warming at 1.5°C, and that missing this target would have serious consequences. Moreover, it is now widely understood that cutting emissions requires action across all sectors of the economy.

Europe’s infrastructure reimagined

As the upcoming EU Sustainable Energy Week will emphasise, climate goals can only be achieved by fundamentally reshaping the European energy system, which requires reimagining the infrastructure that underpins it. Building tomorrow’s infrastructure requires a focus in today’s policy decisions on decarbonising electrical grids, deploying charging networks for e-mobility at large scale and promoting highly efficient buildings.

European policymakers have understood the need to future-proof these infrastructures. The initiatives under the Fit for 55 package and the European Green Deal acknowledge that these three elements are critical for achieving a zero-carbon society by 2050. Today it is important for policymakers to get the details right: infrastructure lasts for decades, so today’s decisions have the potential to lock in lasting benefits, or to result in stranded assets down the road if unsustainable options are supported.

Fortunately, many of the systems that once relied on fossil fuels—vehicles, domestic heating, and several applications in heavy industry—can be converted to run directly on renewable electricity with existing technology. Not only are these electrified alternatives able to run on clean electricity, but they also have superior performance: heat pumps are three to four times more efficient than natural gas-powered heating systems, while battery electric vehicles can travel up to four times further on the same amount of energy compared to their conventional counterparts.

Decarbonisation means electrification

Electrification needs to be ramped up significantly to enable the decarbonisation of transport, buildings and industry. This will require more than simply constructing new renewable generation capacity to meet increased demand for renewable electricity. Modernised infrastructure is also needed, including expanded electricity grids and demand-side flexibility sources such as smart charging and storage systems.

An important condition for making electrification work is the availability of affordable carbon-free electricity. Electricity must be affordable for businesses, consumers and industry if they are expected to electrify their homes, vehicles, offices and factories. The recent debates on the EU’s response to the dramatic increases in wholesale electricity prices have highlighted the multiple risks that sustained high prices can pose for the EU’s decarbonisation plans, not least from public opinion on the perceived cost of the transition.

The proposed revisions of the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive will help by greatly expanding renewable electricity supply and energy efficiency, but more will be needed to maintain affordable prices. The review of the EU Emissions Trading System offers the opportunity to help ensure that carbon prices do not increase too quickly—this is important to avoid slowing down electrification as the main decarbonisation route for industry, in particular for electricity-intensive industries greatly impacted by changes in electricity prices.

Policy should unleash the sustainability potential of infrastructure systems

The Fit for 55 package’s increased ambition for expanding e-mobility infrastructure is welcome, particularly the plans to expand public charging stations to keep up with the increased consumer uptake of electric vehicles. Electric vehicle infrastructure enhancements offer a further opportunity to complement the expansion of renewable electricity. If policymakers help scale up both systems in a coordinated fashion, synergies will develop, for instance by using electric vehicles as energy storage systems to increase the share of renewable energy available to the grid. Further integration of these sectors should be accelerated.

Energy efficiency can be nearly as important as energy supply and will be an essential element as more and more large electrified systems are tied into the energy grid. An approach to energy efficiency that goes beyond simple products and allows harnessing savings from installations like cabling in buildings, using such new technologies as building automation and energy management systems, would help achieve significant additional energy savings. While this currently falls outside the scope of existing EU legislation, the forthcoming review of the Ecodesign Directive as part of the Sustainable Products Initiative is an opportunity to make sure that this significant energy savings potential is fully exploited in the coming years.

The building sector at large holds vast potential for energy savings. It is therefore important that the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive matches the level of ambition of the revised Energy Efficiency targets to ensure that this potential is fully exploited.

The copper industry is committed to supporting the development of the sustainable infrastructure of the future, as copper plays an important role across the electricity system, in renewables, highly efficient buildings and electric vehicles. By 2050, copper-enabled technologies can reduce the EU’s carbon emissions by 75%.

There are no silver bullets in the fight against climate change. The complex interconnected infrastructure systems built to run modern society have been the cause of climate change, and they must also be part of the solution. A comprehensive view of infrastructure that foresees the interconnection of buildings, industry and vehicles through system-wide electrification, powered by affordable renewables, is key to ensuring that the initiatives under the Fit for 55 package meet their ambitious aims.

The Fit for 55 package takes important steps in this direction by accelerating renewable electrification and the deployment of charging infrastructure for e-mobility. The European co-legislators must now work closely together with industry and citizens to ensure the package puts in place the right tools and support mechanisms to make 55 percent happen, without leaving anyone behind.

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