German think-tank: EU’s 32% renewable energy target ’still unambitious’

The main message of the European Energy Atlas is: 100 % renewable energy system is viable with storage and demand response technologies that we already have today, says Radostina Primova. [zak zak / Flickr]

The 32% renewable energy target agreed by EU negotiators last week is still “much lower” than what would be needed to reach the Paris goals on climate change, argue experts at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany.

Radostina Primova is the Director of the Climate and Energy programme at the EU office of the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung, the Green political foundation. Rebecca Bertram is a Senior Policy Advisor for European energy transition at Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin.

They spoke to Adéla Denková, editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Czech Republic.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

  • EU targets currently on the table are much lower than what is need to reach the Paris Agreement goals to which the European Union has signed up.
  • At least a 45% renewable energy and a 40% energy efficiency target needed to reach Paris goals.
  • If Europe unlocks its full energy efficiency potential, it could reduce the energy demand by half by 2050 and meet renewables target much more easily.
  • 100 % renewable energy system is achievable by mid-century with storage and demand response technologies available today, and at only marginal additional cost.

***

You are the editors of the “European Energy Atlas” which was recently presented to the public. What is the main idea behind the project?

Radostina Primova (RP): The main idea of the European Energy Atlas is to show how we can achieve a clean energy transition in Europe. Many of the discussions concerning the energy sector take place at the national level, and we wanted to bring the European perspective into this debate.

We explain the state of art in different EU countries, discuss the driving factors behind the different energy transitions and lay out the challenges that need to be overcome. Here, we put special emphasis on how the different energy sectors, such as electricity, transportation and heating/cooling can be interlinked.

The main message of the European Energy Atlas is: 100 % renewable energy system is viable with storage and demand response technologies that we already have today. There has been a lot of lobbying in different countries and also in Brussels with efforts to convince the decision-makers that the transition towards such system is not possible or too costly.

But we show a clear alternative to this narrative: We want to demonstrate that a European energy transition would bring significant benefits to all EU citizens and Europe as a continent.

Rebecca Bertram (RB): The main reason for why we published the European Energy Atlas at this particular time is of course because that the EU is currently negotiating the energy and climate rules that set the framework by which Europe aims to achieve its 2030 climate and energy goals.

The targets currently on the table are much lower than what we need to reach the Paris Agreement goals to which the European Union has signed up and fight dangerous climate change. That is why we want to manifest that a 100% renewable energy system is achievable by the middle of this century and it will only cost a marginal amount more than the business as usual.

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The negotiations on the energy efficiency directive are still ongoing, but the Council and the Parliament were already able to reach a compromise the renewables target. And it seems that we’re going to have a more ambitious policy than what was originally proposed by the Commission.

RB: Yes, there is now a compromise on an overall binding renewables target of 32% to be reviewed in 2023. This is slightly higher than what was initially proposed (27%) but still less than the Parliament’s position of 35% and still unambitious.

As many renewable energy experts say, we need at least a 45% renewable energy and a 40% energy efficiency target at EU-level, which is currently way out of political reach. The good thing is that now there are also new rights for communities, cooperatives and individuals to produce, consume, store and sell their own renewable energy, without facing excessive charges or administrative barriers. This is a great victory for energy democracy since citizen energy has won important recognition in the renewable energy directive. This has also been a key message in our Energy Atlas.

It is also important to stress that we are really not only talking about renewables. There is a huge energy efficiency potential still untapped. Our Atlas shows that a higher energy efficiency target would help us achieve more easily the renewable energy target.

If Europe unlocks its full energy efficiency potential, it could reduce the energy demand by half by 2050. This means that if the energy efficiency target us higher, the effort needed to reach the renewable energy target would be much lower for all Member States. The European Energy Atlas shows that reaching a 45% renewable energy target would be much easier if we had a target of 40% for energy efficiency.

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Falling costs of solar and wind power make renewable energies more attractive. Can the energy transition actually happen without legislation?

RB: No, it will be very difficult without supporting legislation. That is what we are trying to say with the Energy Atlas.

At the moment, big utilities are dominating the way forward for energy policy in Europe, and there are strong vested interests in keeping fossil fuels and nuclear industries involved. We propose a different world: one with a bottom-up approach where citizens play a greater role, where we create a common identity and strategy for European energy and climate policy.

This vision depends in large parts on the right legislation. If a Member State says it wants to continue investing in coal or nuclear, it is counterproductive to this vision.

What we are saying is that renewables are now often the cheapest technology available, but the political will is often not there to push the technology forward. There are enough businesses, politicians and European citizens who are clinging onto the old system as long as they can.

RP: We need a stable legal and regulatory framework which will facilitate and guide the energy transition. The previous renewable energy directive had binding targets on the national level, and that is also what drove the predictability of the sector. This is how investments work. Investors need stability. This is not something that could be driven by the market alone.

One major message in the Energy Atlas is that European citizens are already driving the energy transition forward, and these small players also need to be protected by legislation. You cannot have the same market rules for citizens and small-scale producers as for the big energy utilities. There must be different market rules for the different participants.

At the moment, the so-called energy cooperatives face a lot of barriers, such as disproportional charges and tariffs, which make it difficult for these kinds of projects to develop in some Member States because of legal or administrative obstacles. This is also why we need regulation at the EU level that will set rules for this type of self-generation and consumption. There is also a need for the harmonisation of these rules as the conditions are very disproportionate in different Member States.

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Can you give examples of countries which have put favourable policies in place for energy communities and self-consumption, and countries where the situation is more difficult?

RP: The Danish government, for example, has promoted the development of community-owned energy projects, and wind power plants in particular. For example one of the supporting measures is through grid connection arrangement, which requires energy utilities (and not the owners of the turbines) to pay any necessary expansion of the grid.

Moreover since 2009, the Danish Renewable Energy Act requires at least 20% ownership of wind energy projects by local people. This is why you have a lot of partnerships there between energy utilities and community energy generation rather than having only privately owned RES projects.

Another positive example comes from Greece. Last year a new energy law on energy communities was voted in the Greek Parliament that defined the role of citizens in the energy sector, highlighting the promotion of a solidarity economy and fighting energy poverty. It has a wide scope on energy communities, as it includes production, distribution and supply of energy as well as special clauses that promote energy self-sufficiency and security in island municipalities.

Usually, in many Central and Eastern European countries where the energy market has been dominated by centralised energy monopolies, community power projects face more legal and regulatory barriers.  In many of these countries the political narrative and the legal framework has to change in order to enable more citizen participation in the energy sector.

Several municipalities like Larissa in Central Greece, Thessaloniki or Athens suburbs have already been making plans to cover their own energy needs.

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The energy transition also means that people in the coal sector will lose their jobs. Are there any good examples in Europe of what can be done to ensure a safe future for them and their families?

RP: You are right that the energy transition should also happen in a socially just way. This is another topic on the agenda that the MEPs and member states are working on. The key instrument will be the post-2020 multiannual financial framework. It is important that this kind of instrument is also used in order to help the coal regions re-structure themselves.

There are some good examples. The Polish region of Silesia, for example, which is very much dependent on coal, will be restructured to renewables and the workers from the coal sector will be automatically engaged in new sectors, so they will not lose their jobs.

There is a pilot project that was launched in the Upper Nitra Region in Slovakia and another one in Nordrhein-Westfalen which is the heartland of coal in Germany. The Prosper-Haniel, one of the huge coal power stations there, was turned into a giant solar battery that can store surplus solar and wind energy. So the workers did not lose their jobs and the same facility that was used for power generation from coal was redesigned into a pumped-storage facility for solar power.

Such facilities could be an innovative solution for transforming coal and lignite dependant regions, since they store excess renewable energy on productive days and discharge it during energy shortfalls.

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