Winter Package leaves citizens out in the cold

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

Missing a trick. Citizen-owned renewables could generate 45% of the EU's energy needs. With the right legislation. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission’s raft of energy policy proposals not only threatens to derail efforts to fight climate change, it squanders a chance to make the EU more relevant for its citizens, writes Jorgo Riss.

Jorgo Riss is director of Greenpeace’s European Unit

This year has been a bruising year for the European Union. Brussels has never come under so much scrutiny and now is the time for it to prove its worth.

The plan to axe mobile roaming tariffs is supposed to be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s hardly game-changing. The more noble goals of the EU, like peace on the continent, can feel very distant from ordinary people day to day.

What the EU is missing is a worthy project that also impacts people in their everyday lives. The bloc does have the power to address probably the biggest crisis facing not only Europeans, but many future generations around the globe: climate change.

Polling shows Europeans want the EU to act on climate change and meeting the commitments the Union made under the Paris Agreement last year; it’s an opportunity to make a real difference.

The Commission’s Winter Package is supposed to set the path to meet those commitments. President Jean-Claude Juncker said he wants to lead a political Commission, making “big [decisions] on big things and small on small things”, so this should be his opportunity. Instead what we’ve been presented with is a technocratic fudge.

There were promises of an “energy union with citizens at its core”, and the Commission has delivered on some of these promises.

Included in the proposals are an assertion of the rights for citizens to produce, consume, store and sell their own renewable energy. If this were borne out, it would not only deliver the emissions cuts necessary to meet the EU’s Paris commitments, but provide tangible benefits for households around Europe.

Empowering individuals, co-operatives and small businesses to produce their own renewable energy would spread the rewards of the energy transition broadly. As well as unlocking a source of investment in renewables, it means the investment is spent in local economies supporting sustainable jobs.

Europeans would benefit from lower energy bills and cosier homes. Supporting renewables co-operatives would also enable more citizens to get involved in larger projects, and build public support.

Instead of harnessing this potential, the Commission’s plans continue the practice of ‘capacity payments’: spending taxpayer money to subsidise polluting fossil fuel and nuclear power. Under these proposals, over 95% of coal power plants would be eligible to receive capacity payments until at least 2026.

The Commission’s attempts to spin this as a phase-out of coal is disingenuous. The proposals would also hand power companies – who have fought tooth and nail against renewables for decades – greater control over the electricity grid, and therefore the energy transition. Instead, the EU should break up corporate control of the grid to level the playing field and allow consumers to carve out some space for locally-produced renewable energy.

Research has shown that citizen-owned renewables have the potential to play a major role in our energy system. Either individually or through co-operatives, small businesses or local government, over half of all Europeans could be generating renewable electricity by 2050 – if the right policies are in place. These ‘energy citizens’ could be meeting 45% of the EU’s electricity demand, too.

The EU’s response to the challenge of climate change will impact its international reputation. Using this opportunity to democratise its energy system is also a chance to improve its reputation within Europe.

The Commission has recognised that engaging citizens in the energy transition is the right thing to do, but its plans are contradictory at best. Energy ministers and MEPs now have the opportunity to truly put citizens at the heart of the energy union, triggering a great transformation that improves the life of every European.