Energy summit runs low on sparks

EU council small.jpg

European Union leaders are holding their first ever energy summit today (4 February) but the policy agenda looks likely to take a backseat to pressing issues such as Egypt and the eurozone debt crisis.

"Much of the meeting's agenda strays away from the prepared conclusions to talk about economics and foreign relations, apparently without leaders recognising the link," said Jason Anderson, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund.

"It is essential for Europe to reduce our dependence on expensive, polluting, insecure energy sources."

EU leaders' attentions however, seem focused elsewhere.

Egypt and the euro

With Egypt, differences over how to balance the EU's goals of stability and democratic change look likely to be papered over with talk of an "orderly transition" of power.

Northern member states are thought to lean more towards the "change" part of the equation, southern countries to "stability". But both positions could be overtaken by events.

Intense discussions are also expected over how to make the European Financial Stability Facility more effective, and how to free up the €440 billion of funds that are available to member states. Results though, may be inconclusive.

Energy efficiency

Divisive energy issues such as how to meet – and measure – the EU's lagging efficiency targets have been kicked some distance into the future.

A copy of the summit's draft conclusions text seen by EURACTIV says only that a review of the goal of increasing energy efficiency by 20% on 1990 levels by 2020 will take place by 2013.

EU diplomats say that behind the scenes, there is disagreement about how accurate and appropriate the Commission's 'Primes energy model system' is for measuring progress towards the target.

States such as Denmark are enthusiastic about making the efficiency goals binding, but the 'Primes' system depends on predictions of future energy supply and demand that are easily contested.

Even so, the summit's draft conclusions maintain that the 2020 targets "must be delivered" and require member states to take account of them in public procurement for new buildings and services from 2012.

No 'energy islands' after 2015

Agreement has been reached that funding for €1 trillion of energy infrastructure investments identified by EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger will come mostly from the market, with some costs being recouped by feed-in tariffs paid to renewable energy suppliers.

But some limited public funding will be made available for security, solidarity or supply-related projects, in order to leverage private investment. In the UK, for example, this would allow public funding for offshore North Sea electricity grids.

The Commission has also been asked to table new initiatives on "smart grids" that can easily transfer wind power to windless areas, and solar power to cloudier regions.

In deference to fears expressed by so-called "energy islands" – such as the Baltic states, Malta and Cyprus – the text pledges that: "No member state should remain isolated from the European gas and electricity networks after 2015 or see its energy security jeopardised by lack of the appropriate connections."

North-South gas corridor

Energy security will also have been on the agenda at a dinner hosted by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso last night (3 February).

The meeting was intended to push leaders of six eastern European states – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – into cooperating on a North-South gas corridor that would provide better power grid connections, free fuel transits, and sectoral harmonisation.

In addition, the summit text asks the Commission to submit a communication on energy security by June. 

A full internal energy market, the document says, should be completed by 2014. 

To meet the EU's ambition for an 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, there is one rallying call – for "a revolution in energy systems which must start now".

But in accord with the limited scope of proposals that member states seem ready to countenance at a time of economic and political upheaval, the only concrete measure proposed is that "due consideration" be given to "fixing intermediary stages" along the way.

The ongoing debate about efficiency targets suggests that even this, in due course, is likely to be contested.

Jason Anderson, head of European climate and energy policy at the World Wildlife Fund, told EURACTIV: "The summit was a chance to push clean energy to a new level but has fallen far short. European leaders have identified problems without proposing solutions or providing a clear vision for achieving a sustainable energy future."

"Energy savings targets will be badly missed but are not being made binding - member states will essentially be asked to report how badly they're doing. The ball is in the Commission's court to propose something meaningful. 2050 targets of 80-95% are mentioned, without recognition that the 2020 target of 20% is totally inadequate to put us on that path."

Staffan Nilsson, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, said in a statement: "The European Union is facing a major energy challenge. Issues of energy independence and economic stability, and of combating climate change and environmental protection all mean that the European Union must step up its transition to a low-carbon economy. The precursor to the technological leap which will allow this transition is energy efficiency, which is a key element of energy policy. Swift progress is both possible and necessary here."

"Where agreement on the definition of binding general objectives is currently lacking, the Committee advocates the establishment of objectives for certain specific sectors such as transport (supplementing the legislation on passenger cars and upcoming rules for light commercial vehicles) and the construction industry."

"Energy is clearly vital for creating new jobs but governments continue to insist on outdated energy policies," said Portuguese leftist MEP Marisa Matias (GUE/NGL). "We need an energy revolution, not more public-private partnerships. Attachment to 'old energy' and a lack of ambition in terms of 'new energy' means this is unfortunately a Council of continuity, when it could be a first step toward real change."

"Recent surveys show that people's greatest concern remains the price of fuel as they are confronted with rising costs" said Czech leftist MEP Vladimír Remek (GUE/NGL). "The Council should come up with comprehensive policies that reflect the interests of citizens so that the EU strives to tackle this problem by working for fair energy prices."

"A Europe without its single market is unthinkable. It has boosted trade, competition and prosperity in Europe, created millions of new jobs, provided wider consumer choice, and a hugely expanded market for business," said a statement signed by 20 European businesses including GE Energy, Enel Green Power, EON Climate and Renewables and Siemens, as well as the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.

"25 years ago European leaders showed courage and vision by creating a single European market. Today's leaders must show similar determination in achieving a single market in electricity, and the heads of state have the opportunity to show such courage and vision by agreeing on 4 February to create a single market for electricity by 2015."

Brook Riley, climate justice and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe, stated: "Rather than investing in environmentally controversial technologies, like shale gas, the EU should solve its import dependency issues by using less energy. Reducing energy use is the solution to Europe's energy security problems – we need a legally binding target that prioritises energy savings."

The EU target of consuming 20% less energy by 2020 was first presented by the European Commission in October 2006. It was meant to enhance Europe's energy security, help counter climate change, and make cost savings.

In 2007, an action plan for energy efficiency proposed measures to achieve a 1.5% savings per year until 2012. It estimated that energy savings of 27% and 30% could be made in residential and commercial buildings. Manufacturing industry energy use could be cut by a quarter, while a 26% reduction for transport was identified.

Overall, the energy savings were expected to allow Europe to reduce its CO2 emissions by 780 million tonnes and save €100 billion in fuel costs, all of which would far outweigh the initial outlay in an efficiency drive.

Member states committed to submitting national action plans to the EU executive under the Energy End-Use Efficiency and Energy Services Directive by June 2007. The plans were supposed to outline how each country meant to reach a 16% savings target of by 2016.

But progress has been slow and the Commission admits that on current trends, a far more modest saving of around 11% is more likely.

Subscribe to our newsletters