The Future of Europe’s Energy Infrastructure: Eyes Bigger Than Its Stomach?

QCEA strongly believes that the EU’s commitment to reducing energy consumption  should be considered before deciding on the energy infrastructure that will lock us into levels of energy supply based on business-as-usual projections.

When a person eats a meal, it is pretty standard for them to first consider how hungry they are. They might consider how much food it is healthy for them to eat, and indeed what food it is healthy for them to eat. They will consider what food they can afford, and increasingly they might consider where it is from, the standards applied in its production and trade. But this isn’t about food. I’m talking about energy supply.

This is about Europe’s appetite for energy. The EU is committed to 20% energy savings by energy efficiency by 2020. This means reducing our energy consumption: using less energy is part and parcel of the EU’s plans and visions. A commitment implies genuine effort to reach a goal and an obligation to put in place what is needed to reach that goal. One might fail to reach it, but should not expect to, and should certainly not make plans on the basis that such a commitment will not be met, for that is not what a “commitment” means.

Sadly, that appears to be what is happening with respect to the European Commission’s plans for energy infrastructure. On 28th of February, the European Council will adopt conclusions on the Commission’s proposals for “Energy infrastructure priorities for 2020 and beyond”. According to EurActiv today, the European Commission is expected to publish its low-carbon roadmap for 2050 on the 9th March. On the 2nd-3rd of May, there will be an informal meeting of energy ministers to debate the roadmap. On 10th June, Energy ministers will adopt conclusions on the new Energy Efficiency Action Plan.

Let us take a step back and consider what this means. Energy infrastructure is the physical infrastructure needed to supply people and industry with the quantities and forms of energy it is anticipated that they need. Electricity pylons and power plants are what we traditionally think of. But we’re also talking about oil and gas pipelines, combined heat and power plants, solar and wind farms, and all the appropriate forms of storage and connections that go with them. Infrastructure is planned and built to operate at certain capacities. It does not make sense to invest greater amounts of money than required in infrastructure that has double the capacity of what we expect to utilize. So, when we choose our energy infrastructure, it has deeply significant implications for the amount of energy we’re going to use. Consequently, we have to be quite sure that we’ve got it right, because we are, to a large extent, committing ourselves to certain levels and kinds of supply.

In February, the EU sets our infrastructure priorities for the next ten years. But only in March are the long-term plans, policy and priorities for reducing our CO2 emissions by 85-90% by 2050 officially presented, and not debated until May. And it’s not until June that the action plan for energy efficiency – the methods by which to make the energy savings the EU is committed to– is announced.  Herein lies the problem.

Deciding on our energy infrastructure priorities – and we’re talking one trillion euros worth of investment in energy infrastructure – to supply and transport energy into and throughout Europe – before we’ve figured out how we’re going to make the energy savings we’re committed to, locks us into levels of energy supply that are not based on projections of energy demand that include our energy efficiency and savings targets.

The infrastructure priorities of the Commission include interconnections and integration of the Central, Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern regions, not to mention a North Sea offshore grid and the Southern Gas Corridor. Leaving aside the merits of different energy sources, we should note that Europe’s existing energy infrastructure needs massive investment in all scenarios, low-carbon and high. Much of it is old, inefficient and incomplete. While, at the same time, new infrastructure is certainly necessary to get new renewable energy sources plugged in to the grid, as well as facilitating energy efficiency measures. Thus, large parts of Europe’s energy infrastructure need repairing and replacing in the next decade, regardless of what we choose to replace it with. What is interesting is the fact that the cost differential between high and low carbon infrastructure scenarios is nominal.

A study by the European Climate Foundation, Roadmap 2050, concludes that ‘the challenge is basically the same in either a high‐carbon, low‐carbon or zero‐carbon energy scenario, in terms of overall cost to consumers and the European economy’.

The difference is the level of investment needed early in the cycle. What we invest in now will not only have the direct consequences of how we get our energy for decades to come, but it effectively starts us on down one of these pathways – and in order to meet our energy and climate commitments, it must be the right pathway. The study concludes that “action before 2015 is a prerequisite for decarbonisation by 2050” and its first recommendation for immediate policy development and implementation is to focus on “energy efficiency measures, creating cost savings and reducing demand”.

So let us consider the problem of having eyes bigger than one’s stomach. When I was little, I was often told I had this problem – consistently, and greedily, taking more than I needed. And what happened when I ate it all up anyway? My belly would expand – I was able to consume more and more – and as I got used to having more, I’d start to feel entitled to unhealthily big portions. Analogously, the EU has become obese, having learnt to guzzle more and more energy, using more than its fair share of a finite resource (fossil fuels), resulting in more than its fair share of damage to our global commons. The solution is not to supply it with more, but to get it into shape.

Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger and his team need to recognize that securing energy infrastructure to meet a projected increase in energy demand, at the same time as having a policy to reduce demand, is paradoxical. The EU’s climate and energy targets require the EU to make policy that reflects the reduced demand levels we recognize we need to meet, and then concentrate on reaching these targets, not lock ourselves into a high-energy-high-carbon future.

In practical terms, this requires that the Roadmap for a Low-Carbon Economy by 2050 and new Energy Efficiency Action Plan be made public prior to announcing new energy infrastructure projects. A Roadmap engages stakeholders, identifies baselines, sets a vision, lays out a number of options to reach the chosen outcome, identifies barriers, and develops implementation plans. This process is not complete – we are in danger of flying blind. Let’s get this done the right way round – we and future generations will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for decades to come – we need to get those decisions right.

Otherwise, it implies either that the EU is not really committed to meeting the energy savings target – seemingly affirmed by the reluctance to make it binding, and failing that, inadequate measures presented to reach it – or it is creating unforgivably incoherent policy, which could jeopardize our climate commitments and future energy security.

Broaching this issue with a member state energy attaché, it was disheartening to hear an analysis that confirms these fears: policy-makers find it difficult to imagine that we will meet these targets. But this thinking is also backwards: we will meet the targets if they put in place the necessary and ambitious frameworks, legislation and measures required to reach them – and the overall cost differential has been shown to be small. Giving up before they’ve even begun won’t bring about the change that is required, and neither will indulging bad habits.

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About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

One comment

  1. European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, was interviewed in European Voice this week about the low carbon roadmap 2050. The report noted that;

    ‘The Commission’s roadmap will stress the importance of early investment in low-carbon infrastructure to avoid paying more later. That is particularly true for the power-generation industry. “If you take too many decisions now that are not consistent with where you need to be, then you are wasting a lot of money, because it will end up being very, very costly to undo,” Hedegaard warns.’

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