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Brussels comes up against a renewables barrier

ImageThere is no lack of enthusiasm in Brussels for increasing the uptake of renewable heat but formulating a draft directive could be more troublesome

Almost half of all energy used in Europe is for heating and cooling purposes. It is accepted that fossil fuel use has to decline, both to reduce the need for imports and the threat of climate change. Hence the big drive to improve the efficiency with which Europe’s buildings are heated and cooled.

But, however efficient the fabric of the building, and however efficient the boilers and the cooling systems, some energy still has to be consumed. There is a big drive on to make sure as much of that energy as possible comes from renewable sources.

Effectively there are just three countries in Europe where such renewables for heating/cooling form a significant part of the market. Between them, Austria, Greece and Germany are responsible for 75% of total EU renewable heating/cooling consumption.

The question being asked is: how can other European countries be induced to follow their example?

The initial champions have been found within the European Parliament. Where there is a formidable cross-party lobby, drawn from that has been gathering momentum over this decade, under the banner of Intelligent Energy.

This cadre of MEPs first formally met almost five years ago under the Intelligent Energy banner– as it happens, on the morning of September 11 2001. Other events in New York and Washington later that day eradicated any publicity for this initiative. But absence of immediate headlines did not diminish either the enthusiasm or the effectiveness of the MEPs’ campaign.

Under the European Constitution, it is only the European Commission that can officially propose new programmes, new directives, new agencies. But in practice, on the whole sustainable energy agenda, it has been this Intelligent Energy group which has been actively proposing initiatives. For a start, it promoted the concept of bringing together all energy efficiency and renewables demonstration programmes together, and then handing responsibility to an independent executive agency outwith the Commission.

This has happened. We now have an Intelligent Energy executive Agency. It is now running no less than 17 projects examining the best way to increase renewable heat production

Each of the recent directives pertinent to this agenda – on co-generation; on the performance of buildings; on biomass; on eco-design, on energy services – has evolved following active informal co-operation between these MEPs and the European Commission. When a formal text is published, the formal spokesmen (rapporteurs) for each of the party groups have almost invariably been drawn from this close-knit cadre. And normally it is they who have ensured that the European parliament is at the cutting edge, demanding stricter standards, higher aspirations, tougher targets.

It is on the topic of renewable heat where the Parliament has pushed furthest. Led by the doughty German socialist Mechtild Rothe, this February there was an overwhelming plenary vote in favour of Europe adopting a binding directive on renewable heat, setting quotas both overall and for each country, on the proportion of heating/cooling fuel to come from renewable sources. In this context, we are talking mostly biomass at present, but also geothermal, solar, and heat pumps – both surface geothermal and air-water application.

Present for this landslide vote was the European commissioner for energy, Andris Piebalgs – who has made his reputation as a true believer in the intelligent Energy philosophy. Visibly enthused, the Commissioner promised that his staff would draft and table a formal directive along these lines during 2006.

And drafting is what is now happening. But it is not proving quite as easy to write as expected. For a start, there is a singular absence of reliable statistics around, on even current consumption levels of renewables for heating and cooling purposes. Leaving a very practical dilemma: if you don’t know what the present levels are (10% is the figure bandied about, but with little certainty), how can we know if or when the 20%, or even 25%, market share being called for by 2020, can be achieved?

There is nothing in the current European Treaty providing any competence on energy policy per se. This is definitely not a single market issue. So, if as seems likely any directive would have to be justified on environmental grounds, it must be acknowledged that some of the key biofuel usages – like burning wood or peat in open fires – is about as thermally inefficient as you can get. Scarcely eco-friendly. And what about industrial heat applications, already captured within the European carbon emissions trading scheme?

The big question remains: will the mutually agreed objective of greater development of this market be more rapid and harmonised as a result of a formal binding directive, passing mandatorily into law in all 25 countries?

Or will it be enough simply to develop binding standards – for instance, for boilers or heatpumps – to ensure that only the most efficient are sold/? Or is it a question of raising awareneness all round, with better training for tradespeople and professional? Could it be a combination of these

Before they go any further, the Commission has to carry out a detailed impact assessment of whatever they propose. Examining not just the economics, but the job creation, the social welfare, and – yes- the full ecological impact of any such package. Whilst still ensuring that, whatever emerges, the proposals acknowledge fully the concept of subsidiarity.

So much of what has driven the entire sustainable energy agenda has been initiated by “Brussels”. Much of what has been most successful has been an ingenious blend of imaginative leaps, and of common sense. But this particular challenge is possibly the most difficult of the lot. And there are only seven more months to complete the task. Bonne chance, tout le monde.






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