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EU Renewables Policy: mixed reactions

By Dave Elliott

The European Union’s renewable energy policy is one of the most ambitious attempts to facilitate a transition towards a more sustainable energy system. A new book, ‘A Guide to EU Renewable Energy Policy’, edited by Israel Solorio and Helge Jörgens and published by Edward Elgar, provides a comprehensive guide to the policy, its implementation and reactions, with contributions from a range of key academics – 24 in all.

It reviews progress on renewable energy policies from the 1980s to the present critically, with the Foreword by Rainer Hinrich-Rahlwes identifying what he sees as a loss of nerve, given the initial bold start and the 20% by 2020 renewable energy target set in 2007. The current 27% by 2030 renewable energy and energy efficiency targets are depicted as ‘hardly more than business as usual’. The replacement of Feed-In Tariffs by contract auctions is also lamented.

Although not all are quite so aggressive in their assessment, there are good critical chapters on specific country programmes, including the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Spain. A simple summary is that, whereas Germany led with Feed In Tariffs (FiTs), which accelerated solar PV fast, and, like Denmark, also pushed wind hard, in Spain renewable deployment was mostly utility-led, so PV solar didn’t grow as much there. In the UK, the support system also favoured large players, with generation costs being higher than with FiTs, so renewables have not expanded as fast as they might have done – its very large wind resource is only being developed relatively slowly. France, Italy and the Netherlands had reacted in mixed ways, with relatively low levels of renewable output resulting.  Given this mixed context, the chapter on the UK is certainly illuminating: it is always interesting to hear how others view us. None too favourably in this case.  The UK is seen as conflicted: strong on climate policy (often taking a lead), but weak on renewables, resisting EU attempts to set specific national targets for them. An ‘awkward partner’, which has ‘steadily attempted to debilitate EU polices’ on renewables, seeking to defend its interests, which seem to have been mainly free markets and nuclear power.

The book also looks at progress in the new Eastern European member states, with useful chapters on Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, highlighting some of the differences resulting from varying national stances and reactions to EU renewables and climate policy. Poland – keen to protect its coal base – is seen as a laggard, sometimes resisting EU directives, while, although they too had problems, in Romania and Bulgaria more progress was made. Indeed, Romania reached its year 2020 24% renewable energy target in 2014, while Bulgaria also overshot its 16% 2020 target, though that then led to a slow down.

There is also some coverage of the EU’s involvement outside its borders, with chapters on the Solar Med plan and on biomass in Mozambique. Biomass issues are covered throughout the book as a special theme and it is clearly an important and contentious area both within the EU and externally. In terms of external initiatives, the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP) story is interesting. The MSP envisaged solar, wind and biomass projects across the Med border regions, linked up perhaps by a ‘med ring’ supergrid. It was a key project of the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’, promoted by France, under its then president Nicholas Sarkozy, in 2008. However, institutional problems emerged, due to Arab-Israeli conflicts, and Spanish resistance to the MSP but, although, as this book reports, they are diminished, the Med Union and MSP still support projects across the MENA region.

In that context, and in relation to the benefits of the MSP to the Mediterranean Partner Countries (MPCs), chapter author Gonzalo Escribano says : The question is whether the MSP has the potential to become a driver for MPCs’ development, or can instead be better considered as an EU-centric project aimed at achieving its own environmental objectives together with the promotion of European industries and engineering firms’. There is clearly a tension there and also issues related to what might be seen as an attempt to ‘europeanise’ the region.

The EU renewable energy programme is certainly fascinating as an example of an attempt to develop a co-operative approach, despite often conflicting member state interests. And this book is a good policy primer, with an interesting analytic framework for ‘europeanisation’, offering categories for the member state responses to EU policies. In terms of a ‘vertical’ model of interaction, some are pro-active, some are just responsive. So it contrasts EU policy bottom-up ‘uploaders’ with top-down ‘downloaders’ on the basis of their degree of ‘fence sitting’/acquiescence, ‘pace setting’/ participation, or ‘foot dragging’/resistance. No prizes for which categories the UK, or Poland, fall in. Though a ‘horizontal’ classification is also mentioned, based on imitation (not imposition!), with EU enthusiasts no doubt hoping that its policies will be copied and exported elsewhere. Though maybe not all should be: as this book shows, not everyone sees its competitive single-market based drive to ‘harmonise’ EU renewable support systems and get rid of FiTs, as beneficial. These are issues I have been looking at recently in relation to Africa, currently the focus of much EU effort, in a book I have been working on. The EU has been a leader, but it may not have all the answers…

Edward Elgar has also published a Research handbook on EU energy law and policy edited by Rafael Leal-Arcas and Jan Wouters, with 39 academic contributors. Given this input, it is even more detailed in its review of EU energy policies, legislation, regulation, governance and associated issues. Legal aspects include energy justice issues and marine law – and also corruption. Its coverage is wide, covering most aspects of energy policy (e.g. oil and gas policy), as well as renewables, although, thankfully, it’s not all just about supply: it does look at energy efficiency, lamenting the lack of an integrated approach.

One focus is on what social science research needs to be done to improve the EU’s handling of energy issues. I contributed an overview chapter, in which I concluded that ‘energy generation and use patterns are changing, partly as a result of new technology, but also due to new consumer and community preferences. In terms of research, understanding these social changes is perhaps the key need. While there is a continued drive towards a single European energy market (with or without the UK) and the proposed European Energy Union, at the grass roots, other forms of economic and social organisation are emerging with perhaps different, often more localised, orientations, as well as differing drivers and problems’.

The point being that new forms of enterprise are emerging, with new motivations, including co-ops and community energy groups creating local economic value based on renewable energy use. They are no longer a small minority group – around 40% of the renewable capacity in Germany is locally owned, as are many of the wind projects in Denmark. Responding to that, and indeed supporting more, will require new energy policies, legislation, regulation, and governance, not least to make sure the system can still be balanced.

That of course assumes that the EU really does want to move ahead to a fully sustainable future. The overall message from this book, and even more so from the previous one, is that it is trying, although there are many internal conflicts and diversions, including the only-tangentially-mentioned nuclear issue, and also the imminent departure of the UK.

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