Power to the people: Why the Energy Union must be close to citizens

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An extensive network of electric vehicle charging points is just one example of a measure that would advance EU citizen involvement in the bloc's energy plans. [Shutterstock]

The necessary ambition of a common energy policy must be backed up by tangible projects that can be readily understood by all European citizens, writes Michel Derdevet.

Michel Derdevet is Secretary General of Enedis, the French electricity distribution network operator. He is also a lecturer at the Institute of Political Studies of Paris and professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.

The Energy Union is, rightly, one of the political priorities of the current European Commission, in particular through the four packages of specific measures, including the Clean Energy Package which should be adopted in the course of 2018.

In a Europe where the primary energy choices are still bound by the political and industrial options of each country, the electricity grids, and more specifically the distribution grids, can in fact be one area of agreement, promoting greater convergence between the member states.

In fact they are at the heart of the energy transition: 95% of the electricity produced from renewable energies is connected to the distribution grids, close to where it is used. They are becoming increasingly smarter, as are the digital interfaces used to support things like electric vehicles and connected homes within “smarter” local areas.

Among the 12 recommendations of the “Energy, a networked Europe” report that I presented to the President of the French Republic on 23 February 2015, five initiatives are sufficiently tangible to contribute to the emergence not only of a Europe that is a pioneer in the low-carbon transition, but also a Europe that makes sense in the eyes of its citizens.

Build a European low-carbon vehicle motorway recharging network

To achieve the EU’s ambition of becoming a world leader in electro-mobility, the issue of charging infrastructure is paramount, both in terms of its impact on the electricity grid and the perception that Europeans have of autonomy and freedom of movement.

In 2015, we put forward the proposal of creating a network of the 70,000 km of European motorways through a mass investment in electrical charging stations. This is a powerful signal in favour of clean mobility, which would allow easier forward planning and be reflected in a significant cost reduction for the electricity grids.

Several initiatives have been launched since then, in the Benelux, between Spain, France and Portugal, between France and Germany and between the countries of Eastern Europe and Germany.

Therefore, at this stage this would involve bringing all these projects together and in particular giving them high political visibility as well as a firm time horizon, so that by 2025, all European motorways can be used by low-carbon vehicles, with no breaks in the system, from Poland to Portugal and from the Benelux to Greece.

Launch a European smart grid and storage R&D plan

Smart grids will be essential in the future to ensure the integration of renewable energy and, in particular, the issue of their intermittency as well as to offer new services to consumers and reduce the cost of the energy transition. Europe holds a leading position in this area, with many internationally recognised groups.

Integrating storage will be a key element of smart grids. European industrialists have a role to play in certain technological segments which could be cell assembly, smart technology for controlling batteries, etc. but also in relation to the next generation of batteries that will supersede Li-Ion technology and that Europe needs to anticipate.

A large European industrial initiative could be launched around the “battery of the future”, with the ambition of giving impetus to an alliance between all the European players concerned to pool their Research & Development efforts, develop new materials and thereby maximise their production systems and processes.

Set up a European energy data platform

With the deployment of smart meters and the expansion of connected objects, the amount of data available will undoubtedly grow exponentially.

The technologies for exploiting this data open up new prospects for the energy system. The opportunities for the energy transition are as wide as the challenges that relate to cybersecurity and data protection.

The establishment of a European data platform would simultaneously protect European citizens’ data, would take full advantage of the digital revolution to help bring about the energy transition and would contribute to the emergence of players able to stand up to the GAFAM.

Encourage cross-border cooperation between distribution system operators.

The CROME and Smart Border Initiative (SBI) projects already embody Franco-German cooperation with regard to distribution.

We must now go further and reap the benefits of the work in progress, organise the symbolic communication between the two countries around these projects to show firstly that the – sterile – antagonisms regarding the respective electrical mix of the two countries have been overcome and secondly the joint attention that is being given to the impact of the energy transition on infrastructure.

Create a College of Europe of Energy

Finally, redesigning the European energy landscape cannot not be reduced simply to a question of investment in the grids, regulations or organisation! It implies also, and more than anything else, a significant need for education, training and intellectual sharing.

The emergence of European excellence in innovation involves increasing the skills of thousands of employees, or future employees, of the energy sector (and related sectors) to best accompany the hundreds of billions of euros of investment that the energy transition requires.

The creation of a College of Europe of Energy could be an important lever for upgrading the skills of European energy professionals through initial and continuing training, in liaison with industrialists and research centres.