Seán Kelly MEP: Gas is ‘preferred option’ as back-up for renewables

You cannot compel countries to close down coal mines and switch off coal power generators overnight, says Seán Kelly. [© European Union, 2018 – Source: European Parliament]

Intermittent renewable electricity will need backup for at least the next 20 or 30 years, says Irish MEP Seán Kelly. As the least dirty among fossil fuels, natural gas is probably the most cost-effective and “preferred option,” he argues.

Seán Kelly heads Ireland’s Fine Gael party delegation in the European Parliament, which is affiliated to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

Kelly is EPP shadow rapporteur for the recast Renewable Energy Directive, which is currently being negotiated in three-way talks between the European Commission, Parliament and Council.

In early March, he hosted the launch event of EU-SysFlex, an EU-funded research project in which EURACTIV takes part as media partner.

Negotiations on the renewable energy directive have started between the European Parliament and EU Council. The Parliament voted a 35% target for 2030, EU Council wants 27%. Where will they meet?

It’s going to be a big discussion. The first trialogue took place on 27 February, but we didn’t really get down to any details. We outlined our positions. I would hope that at the end of the day we will be closer to 35 than to 27%.

The European Commission said that the target should be higher than what it proposed two years ago because energy costs for renewables have come down dramatically, especially for wind and solar. And it has recently produced a report saying we could go to 34%.

If a target higher than 27% is cost effective, why don’t the member states agree?

Probably because they are afraid that it might not be cost-effective and require too many changes. And, of course, they are reluctant to spend money in this field, when people want them to deal with social issues like housing and health.

But we have to try to make them look at the big picture. This is really all about housing, health, environment and the future.

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What kind of expenses would a higher renewable energy target imply for member states?

IRENA has proved that a higher target can be cost-effective, that we have to convince them. But it would also mean changing the policy for many member states. They will have to facilitate investments in getting the planning permission, the opportunity, the environment to make it happen.

It all takes work on behalf of Member States. The closer we get to 35%, the more pressure we are putting on them. But we are also making it easier for them because we are sending a message to the market: This is the way to go, so let’s do our best not only to reach the target, but to surpass it.

Which member states are closer to the position of the Parliament?

Those who have done most in the past and especially those on the continent. That would be my own country, Ireland, and then Spain and Portugal to a certain extent.

But we are only starting to see the potential. It is a question of convincing them. The Parliament and hopefully also the Commission are concerned not to allow a 27% target. Even if we did nothing, we would reach 25 or 26% anyways.

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The Visegrad countries are especially reluctant to approve a higher target. How can you convince them?

I was very pleased with the countries represented in my political group, the European People’s Party (EPP). When I first went to them with a 35% target, they were totally against it and understandably so.

Are you talking about the Czech Republic and Hungary?

Yes. And when I told them that it was more cost-effective now than before and that we have the duty to go in this direction. They backed me in the group and we got a huge majority in the Parliament for the 35% target. And the majority reflects the general will of the public.

The target in question is supposed to be set for the EU as a whole. How will the national targets be determined?

That is why the Parliament, in the end, voted – after a long discussion – not to put in binding targets on every Member State. You can put in a binding target for renewables and then they might do nothing in some area. It is a question of a combined effort of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

They will have to come up with their own plans and say how much they can do in electricity, transport, buildings. The combined effort is going to feed in the overall target. That is why the implementation of the governance by the Commission over the whole period is going to be so important. There is a great flexibility for member states, but they have no free pass, either.

I was very pleased when our own Prime Minister Leo Varadkar came to the Parliament. He was asked by the Greens leader Philippe Lamberts on Ireland’s failure to reach our 2020 targets. He admitted it. He said we were laggards and we are going to improve from now on. That is the message we have to get to every country.

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Is the 2030 target realistic given that the legal framework is weaker? For 2020, there were binding national targets…

Some countries did not meet even the binding national targets. It also takes a lot of time to get to the people’s psyche, to make politicians understand that this is the way to go. We have done all that now. There is also a kickback from consumers, which is great.

None or very few of them in Ireland are happy we haven’t reached our 2020 targets. There are ways to do it, so let’s put the framework and support in place. And the government will actually do that now. The same will happen in every other country. But it has to be driven by the Commission.

So, you don’t think the legal framework for 2030 is weaker compared to 2020?

I don’t think so. The desire to implement it is stronger. Especially because of the commitments given in the Paris Agreement. There was no Paris Agreement prior to the approval of the 2020 targets.

The EU played a big part in negotiating the Agreement. It is now going to compel member states to voluntarily reach the targets and ensure we are going to be the leaders in the world, not just talking about it.

There is already public awareness on global warming. For instance, early March in my own country we had the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorm. This had never happened before in Ireland. We had snow walls six to seven feet high, roads were blocked. All people are now saying the cause is climate change, so let’s do something about it.

Do people believe it?

The vast majority does. They want to see the government taking action. That pressure is going to grow.

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What is your view of the Commission’s decision to validate capacity mechanisms allowing, among others, Poland to continue operating coal power plants and subsidise them?

That will change over time. Look at it from the point of view of cost competitiveness. Member States are trying to grow their economies, but at the same time move them towards renewables.

Poland is aware of that as well. It will gradually move in that direction. But you cannot compel countries to close down coal mines and switch off coal power generators overnight. In Ireland, one of the biggest power stations is coal-fired. That is going to change over the next couple of years.

Will Ireland phase out coal power by 2020?

Yes. We will phase out coal in power production. In buildings, coal won’t be used so much as a fuel either. That will decrease demand for coal. And on the other side, if we can get the ETS price floor, it will also create the market. It’s going to happen.

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Poland has been steadily growing its share of renewable energies in an effort to decarbonise its economy, challenging stereotypes that paint it as the coal-addict of Europe. However, the deployment of renewables appears to have come to a halt since the 2015 peak.

By 2030, renewables could represent a majority of the electricity mix. But what other energy source will be their partner in keeping the system stable? Coal, gas or nuclear energy?

Interconnections are going to be an important part of it. In Ireland, we now have too much capacity. If we connect to France, we can feed it off there. If we have no renewable energy in Ireland and France has it, it can feed us. There are going to be new renewables as well. Some of them very reliable. One is wave and tidal energy. It is essentially not intermittent.

Recently, a tidal demonstration project by EDF has failed.

An indoor facility in Ireland replicates conditions at sea. They are developing wave, tidal and wind together. That would be continuous.

What about nuclear energy and natural gas?

Being realistic, for the next 20 or 30 years, you will need to have a backup to the renewables. Gas is probably the most cost-effective and the least dirty of the fossil fuels. It is a preferred option.

Nuclear is also a possibility. Poland wants to build a nuclear power station. But the important thing is to increase gradually the share of renewables in electricity generation.

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