Heatwaves: We need air conditioning and energy efficiency policies

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

In a heatwave, the surge in air conditioning use is a burden for power operators

In a heatwave, the surge in air conditioning use is a burden for power operators [Qfamily/Flickr]

Europe’s politicians must start championing energy efficiency policies to counter sensationalist media reports, writes Jack Hunter.

Jack Hunter is communications manager at the European Environmental Bureau.

Wednesday was the hottest July day ever recorded in the UK. Across Europe, people reached for the air conditioning. That cool blast was paradise for most, but became a nightmare for power grid managers with spiking demand.

Parts of France literally went into meltdown, with heat knocking out electrical equipment and with it, any air conditioning for over a million people. That’s game over for the grid chiefs and sweaty collars all around.

Grid control people are adapting to freaky weather and more demand as best they can, but anything we can do to shift the problem away from the goal-line is welcome. Cue Ecodesign, Europe’s hardest-working, but much ridiculed energy efficiency policy.

Though the popular press regularly pans the policy, things would have been a lot worse this week if Ecodesign hadn’t been quietly transforming the market towards ever more efficient air conditioning units since 2012, without anybody really noticing. It did this with the blessing of manufacturers and consumer organisations, but these kinds of arguments are not enough to stop bombastic newspapers hacking at these ‘EU diktats’ that meddle with people’s lives.

If you love to hate Brussels, the market can do the job, not bureaucrats. But have courage – this dog’s bark is far worse than its bite and the bluster is 95 percent heat and 5 percent light, just like the old lightbulbs Europe nailed a while ago.

Take Germany and the Hoovergate media outburst: there was rage last year over the EU capping the power consumption of vacuum cleaners. Manufacturers had been locked in an arms race for years, pushing muscular marketing nonsense about titanic machines with heroic power.

Now, after Ecodesign, the same firms are competing in the opposite way, marketing machines on efficiency grounds. Power does not equal performance and good design is important.

The market took us for suckers and were fooling people into buying brute-force machines that were far better at sucking Euros from your wallet than dirt from the floor. Don’t believe me? Check out the hilarious ‘battle of the hoovers’ last year, when two leading MEPs physically clashed (kind of) on German TV. One walks away with a very red face. 

Yet these media attacks do have a seed of truth.

They are right, these are policies that affect people’s lives, the goods they buy and their energy bills. A small group of newspapers, largely confined to the UK, will go on bashing the policies as long as nobody makes the case out loud. This week’s weather and demand spike should sound an alarm for action. 

The fact that Ecodesign saves as much energy as our dysfunctional emissions trading scheme should sound an alarm. 

Next month’s drought across southern Europe should also sound an alarm, with Ecodesign ready to improve the continent’s hundreds of millions of taps and showers, but not under withering fire from an undisputed ‘small Europe’ media narrative.

The market won’t always solve our energy problems. Deregulation can be a false idol. Being small is fine, but doesn’t apply to Europe’s army of kettles, toasters, mobile phones and all the other items that may drop off the European Commission’s Ecodesign to-do list.

Carefully crafted product policies are transformative, but will never happen unless those that believe in Europe start championing them. It’s not a hard sell. These are policies that affect people’s lives. Isn’t that what politicians are in office for?

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