The English language offers, amongst its many qualities, a distinction between policies and politics. Surely it seems that the distinction was lost on the speakers, whom more often than not offered one for the other.
In practice little if no new views were shared with the audience during the official presentations. Issues ranging from Euro-Mediterranean cooperation to RE financing were handled in similar fashions: broadly and ineffectually.
A perhaps dim view of what constitutes a policy resembles something like the following. A policy is an attempt to summarize in a set of propositions solutions to a given array of issues. While broad, this definition does have a few merits; for one, it crystallizes debates on the three areas of potential discord: (i) the problem, (ii) the solution, and (iii) the level of efforts needed to achieve a solution.
To use this definition at the Conference, we find that "utter uselessness", which one would wish to leave to abdominals machine sold on late night TV shopping programs, also applies here.
(i) The problem:
Climate change, defined broadly, appeared to be the most consequential issue to be addressed by a new energy policy for the European Union and indeed for the World through the Copenhagen Summit. If this writer readily concedes that no time should be lost in attempting to convert the skeptics on this issue, climate change should not become a jail-break card for use at difficult turns of phrases in commissioners' speeches. Climate change has severe consequences, some distant like rising sea-levels, and some more pressing, such as land fertility and its concomitant changes in food prices and migration. These beg for different strategies on the one hand, and for inclusion in our policy response on the other hand. To give a quick example of how this may play out, one may argue that urgency should drive us to reduce emissions of GHG gases with the highest short term impact such as methane - not CO2. As for land fertility changes, one may wish to integrate this constraint in her reflection over biofuels. Alas, views on the articulation of the exact problems we are facing were missing.
If energy security was alluded to, it was only in passing. Words often used were "facilitator", "accelerator" of renewable energy penetration, which helps narrowing the issue on the role of European and member states' institutions in the implementation of a given policy; another way to consider the issue however is to remark that no matter what policy is in fact implemented, fossil fuels are exiting the stage. Dwindling reserves, delayed investment, international relations considerations and accelerating rates of decline in existing fields shout for action; but one would be hard pressed to hear any argument integrating these issues. Instead, it seems, we are merely encouraging renewable energies. It is the humble opinion of this writer that this language reflects not simple political confusion over what issues renewable energy policy should be an answer to, but an integration of the political implications of a given policy at the industry level. Venturing in such territories is always hazardous, but the idea remains that discourse on RE penetration positions RE against other energy sources where in fact it opposes incumbent industries. In the lone words of MEP Claude Turmes, utilities are the biggest incumbents in the history of mankind with the exception of the Catholic church.
As a result, policy appraisal with regards to merits as a solution was difficult.
(ii) the solution
Renewable energy policy was not presented, obviously, in full details, be it in terms of objective or in terms of method. DGTREN direction Jones echoed statements by other panelists that current trend would allow member states to overshoot their 2020 targets and later placed the 2050 target at 80% below 1990, with is tantamount to a 100% renewable energy system in Europe. If this is no doubt feasible, such a discourse should not focus on the objective - which is easily justifiable to a crowd of RE industry analyst and policy makers in the field - but on the readily identifiable issues and how the Commission proposes to tackle them.
Amongst the most obvious problems faced, teaching the law of diminishing returns to panelists appears to be the most daunting. Saying that the current pace of RE penetration will allow the EU to over shoot its target means that last year's rate of growth held for the next ten years will be enough. This is well and good, but technical considerations such wind, solar and biomass reserve, to use the oil industry term, matters. The price of penetration is a function of costs and resource, an issue which should not be downplayed. The overused expression "low-hanging fruits" comes to mind: now is the time to think about the more difficult challenges ahead.
A PV advocate forwarded the past 20 years progress in solar cells to the next 20 years to estimate the cost of PV then.
A few issues were alluded to which would have merited more discussion.
First, what will happen when RE start encroaching with nuclear power's base load prerogative is unclear. RE priority access appears to the political term to designate the issue, but no potential technological evolution in nuclear technology - iff coexistence is deemed, as is still debated, a good thing - were discussed. An explanation could be that nuclear power will not see any renaissance at all and that the phase-out of 60's and 70's plants will coincide with renewables penetration in base load supply.
Also, the question of how renewables will provide peak power was mentioned only in side remarks, including the CEO of Areva Renewables. One way to ensure that a maximum share of renewable energy at peak demand times is by ameliorating the grid so that excess production can be channeled where it is lacking. Overall, however, unless we are ready to install enough capacity so that load factor times capacity equals peak demand, we will run into difficulties. Help form power-shedding, new hydro was not discussed.
As far as the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation is concerned, new ideas were few and far between. How the new name is going to affect the previous iterations is unclear. The panel was at pains to explain how it differed from the German consortium which seeks to channel power from north Africa to Europe. In fact, it seems to have become a new component of previous cooperation efforts, and will drive it. Questions over the replication of the old centralized model were not directly answered, nor were questions surrounding the practical power sharing agreement which will have to be found with host countries. Up until today, lack of economic development and dictatorships have allowed for rather simple royalty fees structure. If the Euro-Mediterranean initiative bears its fruits, that is, if it does lead to economic development and democratization, the questions of resource sharing will become more salient.
In fact, it is the opinion of the writer that the questions of centralization is not the most salient. If changes in the transmission sector allow for long distance spreading of power, then so be it. However, these technical changes do not modify our attitude towards energy producers. Historically, the West has been more than conciliatory with "trustworthy" suppliers. It would be a pity to continue on the same path.
(iii) Complexity of the solution:
From points i & ii, it is clear that discussing whether options go far enough is not a simple task.
In his opening speech, Commissioner Piebald, through a speech reader, said that: "annual electricity growth will be 2.30% according to IEA, while power plants must be replaced to answer demands and respect new standards. But since we rely on markets, we can only steer companies to make the right choices". Later on, he argued that for this steering, "nor public opinion nor market forces will be enough."
This offering of stewardship from the Commission and the incident position it sees itself in --- a more dirigiste one --- is a bold statement. It was, however, not reiterated afterwards by other members of the Commission. Overall, this was the most interesting comment, since it anchored the discussion in a policy space; one can only regret this was not followed by most panelists.
One striking moment at the conference was the call from both Vestas and Areva Renewables for "predictability" within support schemes and overall policy, so that investments can take place. It were as if energy policy, commitment to emissions reductions, Kyoto had never happened and that renewable market was a fringe operation. In a private discussion, MEP Claude Turmes said that the simplest explanation was the overall opposition of big utilities whose coming irrelevance from decentralization was not lost on them. If these comments cannot readily apply to Vestas, the larger issue remains that utilities continue to oppose efforts toward higher renewable penetration and that this opposition is the largest hurdle that the EU currently faces in achieving a 100% renewable grid. It seems as though the issue of convincing remains, which, as this writer remarked in the introduction, is the one thing that was not done at all.
All in all, the most pressing issue for the E.U seems to be to prepare for a high renewable grid trough interconnections. The largest wind potential is in the north of Europe and will have cross borders without a hiccup. The new, proposed European regulator will attempt to do just that.
The issue of job creation was the subject of a whole panel discussion, but there again the issue of the effectiveness, measured in jobs created, of investments in renewable energy subsidies, was not addressed. Instead, a few numbers (8job per MW of wind constructed, 0.2 per MW in O&M) were given. Whether these includes jobs lost from disappearing industries was not indicated. At the end of the two hours sessions, we didn't know how renewable energy subsidies compared to the Keynesian alternative, burying bank notes in deep mines. Such a comparison however would go a long way in reassuring policy makers that the outcome of the renewable energy policy can be felt right away. In private, the speaker of the French government did express concerns that these measures would prove too costly: while this is a not a new concern, that the very people involved are not sure of the exact impact of their actions is somewhat worrisome. On a side note, he expressed disbelief when a speaker vouched for IRR "in the single digits". According to him, "financial engineering allows for returns up to 25% in France."
This writer's dismay may very well come from his youthful impetuosity. That issues were only touched upon and not debated fully may in fact be rather usual at policy forums. Possibly, his longing for academic discussions and debates transpire in this short introductory note to the EREC Conference.
The European Union seems intent in accelerating renewable energy penetration in the coming decades. Until the results from both the RES Directive and Phase III of the E.U. ETS arrive, it will focus on energy efficiency in the housing sector, with a clear intent to make buildings net energy producers.
If this writer regret the fragmented nature of this policy debate, it may just be that such are the nuances, to call them that, of politics. Yet, if policy is so difficult, it must be because of all its discontents.