A leading climate analyst and adviser to world governments has warned the EU that its environmental goals will become meaningless unless the bloc learns from US President Barack Obama's mistakes, and makes a supergrid the 'nervous system' of its energy policy.
Jeremy Rifkin is a highly-influential American writer whose best-selling Third Industrial Revolution arguably provided the blueprint for Germany Energiewende transition to a low-carbon economy, and China’s strategic acceptance of climate policy.
Speaking to a Brussels 'Supergrid 2013' conference via a web interlink on 19 March, he sounded a warning note about obstacles to the ‘clean energy internet’ that he envisages a European supergrid becoming.
“Do not make the mistake that President Obama made,” Rifkin said. “He wanted a green economy – he still does – but it didn’t happen because he spent billions of dollars on standalone pilot projects: advanced projects for a supergrid in one state, a solar factory in another state, a batteries factory in a third state, all unconnected silos.”
Rifkin’s guiding idea of an ultra-efficient clean energy renaissance has five interconnected components: booming renewable energy supplies, mass deployment of electricity storage facilities, a roll-out of clean transport, and the conversion of all buildings into efficient micro-power generation plants.
Crucially, it depends on the development of a smart supergrid that can provide a "mega-platform" for what Rifkin calls "the democratisation of energy," a transformation of energy users into producers through the micro-generation of renewable electricity that can be sold back to the grid.
“These five pillars are meaningless by themselves, including the supergrid,” Rifkin said. “They only become operational as we phase in and connect the pillars.”
The idea of the third industrial revolution is that electricity will ultimately be tapped through windmills on the sides of buildings, solar panels on roofs, geothermal energy beneath foundations, and garbage in the kitchen. It could then be transported to a potential market of one billion people, stretching from Finland to the Maghreb.
“The EU has a golden goose but it is not feeding it,” Rifkin said.
European plans to build the necessary mesh of grid inter-connections to accommodate renewable energies have been set back by budget cuts announced last month in the EU’s draft 2014-2020 budget.
Almost half of the funding earmarked for the Energy Infrastructure Package to build grid infrastructure, some €4 billion, sank below the waves of austerity – so jeapordising EU plans to link wind farms to electricity grids, according to Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.
Liberal MEP Graham Watson blamed pressure from fossil fuel companies.
“We should never underestimate the power of the oil and gas lobbies, especially now that shale gas is being exploited and we should not underestimate the stasis of governments, not just at Brussels-level but in member states,” he told the conference.
A supergrid was essential for growth and security, Watson argued. But “we saw in the last discussion about the EU’s next funding period, large amounts of money staying in the politics of the past and relatively little going into the investments we will need to deal with the future,” he said.
EIB to the rescue?
The energy infrastructure package had initially been supposed to invest €9.1 billion of public seed money to raise €200 billion for investment in grid infrastructure.
To bolster the looming shortfall, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is currently in talks with the Commission and member states about the potential for raising money on international capital markets, using its access to member state funds as surety.
Richard Willis, a bank spokesman, said that loans to energy projects usually covered a third of costs, but could reach as much as one half.
“We recognise energy schemes as a key priority and where other sources of finance are retreating at the moment, we see the need to step up our engagement for large-scale infrastructure, as well as smaller schemes,” he told EURACTIV.
The EIB took a strategic decision in late 2012 to increase lending to energy projects over the next three years and an internal lending policy review, due to wrap up in the summer, is expected to distill the details of this further.
“We [already] see a need to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to ensure security of supply and we have done a number of big inter-connectors between the UK and Ireland, and the UK and the Netherlands, as well as key links across Europe,” Willis said.
Yet according to Rifkin, the issue has a global significance because of a pressing need to decarbonise by 2030, if tipping points for containing global warming are not to be exceeded.
“The entire infrastructure of this civilization made out of carbon-based fuels is now clearly on life support,” he said. “We can smell it all over the world, its dying around us.”
“We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution and Europe is leading on this,” he continued. “But we are not moving as quickly as we should.”