Earlier this week I attended the Berlin Energy Forum, previously known as the “Berlin Fossil Fuels Forum”. Beyond the valuable networking opportunity, the event came with a reaffirmation of Germany’s central place for EU energy policy and some questions about the role and status of fossil fuels in policy discussions.
Germany: not just one amongst others
In Brussels we want to believe that large Member States have equal chances of influencing EU policy discussions. When it comes to energy policy, it is however hard not to notice the huge impact that Germany has over the policy debate.
In 2011 Germany launched the most radical energy reform with its Energiewende. On Monday Sigmar Gabriel, the new Vice-Chancellor in charge of economic and energy policy, set out the reasons behind this truly bold political decision. And he is convinced that other countries will follow. Of course this ‘Energy Turn’ is first known as the complete phase-out of nuclear by 2022 but it is also more generally the complete change in power sources, with a large and rapid boost for renewable energies. Three issues have emerged as a result and are now at the heart of EU energy policy discussions:
1) Energy Costs: Germany’s push for renewable energies led to what was described by the Commission in Berlin as ‘overcompensation’, especially for solar. Does it not seem strange that, of all sunny places in the world, 35% of global solar capacity is now located in Germany? As a result of this massive increase in renewable subsidies, a German household pays an extra €260 a year on its electricity bill.
2) State Aid: DG Competition recently brought a case against Germany and the exemptions from the EEG (Renewable Energy Act) for energy-intensive industries. Should they stop being exempted, German energy-intensives could face a net increase in electricity price of up to 50€/MWh. Exemptions from renewable surcharges are also a major topic of the draft State Aid Guidelines for Energy and Environment, open to consultation until tonight.
3) Coal vs. Gas: To provide stability and back up intermittent renewables, Germany is burning more cheap coal (lignite), whilst German gas power plants are being mothballed. Experts argue that Germany will miss its 40% GHG reduction target by 2030 because of this ‘coal renaissance’ in the country.
Due to the issues described above, the Energiewende is considered from abroad with a degree of scepticism. The future will tell us if the German energy revolution delivers on its promises. One thing is sure: it will continue to set the energy policy agenda in Brussels.
Fossil Fuels: In or Out?
This year, the Commission considered that the previous focus on Fossil Fuels was no longer relevant or appropriate and decided to focus instead on more horizontal topics, roughly corresponding to the inevitable energy triangle: sustainability, security of supply and competitiveness. It doesn’t mean that fossil fuels were kept out of the programme. Nuclear, coal and natural gas representatives were largely involved in discussions. However, the Berlin Energy Forum didn’t address the challenges of primary energy supply, largely focusing instead on the power market. This led to some confusion, especially as the Commission had planned an additional session outside of the official programme to discuss oil and gas supply.
Clearly the Commission wants to send a signal that Europe needs to move away from fossil fuels. This is part of a broader story of progress, of Europe reducing emissions and declaring its “energy independence” (as quite provocatively described recently on the Commission’s Twitter account). Some may argue that this story also needs to be grounded in reality. And the reality today is that, as Fatih Birol pointed out during the debate, fossil fuels still represent 82% of the global energy mix, only expected to fall to 76% by 2035.
Whilst the Commission should more clearly acknowledge that fossil fuels cannot simply be dismissed from discussions, it is also the fossil fuels industry’s role to demonstrate they can be a part of this story of progress, by emphasising their immense innovation and technological expertise and by demonstrating they can be used in more energy-efficient ways in the future. They may not have their own separate forum anymore, but this gives them a great opportunity to show to the Commission that they can contribute to discussions in a constructive manner.