Towards a Community Strategy for Renewable Energy Sources

- By:

Courtesy of European Commission, Environment DG

 Energy Policy Directorate

The European Commission on 20 November last year published a Green Paper on Renewable Sources of Energy. The Communication (COM(96) 576 final) is appropriately entitled 'Energy for the Future: Renewable Sources of Energy; Green Paper for a Community Strategy'. Although the Community for many years has supported renewables, for example in the framework of the ALTENER and JOULE-THERMIE programmes, they still do not play their proper role in the European Union. The Green Paper aims at putting this situation right. It is the first step in the establishment of a Community Strategy for renewable energy sources. The second step will consist of a White Paper accompanied by an Action Plan to be published later this year.

Increased use of renewable sources of energy involves a number of advantages for the European Union. Firstly, renewables are all indigenous energy resources and can play a key role in reducing dependency on imported energy. All forecast, including the Commission´s own 'Energy 2020', show that energy dependency is likely to increase significantly over the next decades.

Secondly, development of renewable energy is essential in order to reach our environmental goals, in particular as far as reduction of CO2 emissions is concerned. Given that renewable sources of energy are CO2 neutral, these energy sources are ideally placed to play a leading role in the international CO2 reduction strategy likely to be agreed at the forthcoming third Conference of the Parties (COP3) to take place towards the end of this year in Kyoto, Japan.

Renewable energy sources are also important elements in regional development and job creation, in particular in those regions of the Community suffering from industrial decline and high unemployment. Increased use of renewable energy sources can in particular benefit small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which are an important element of the Community´s industrial assets.

Finally, increased use of renewables can contribute to reaching the aim of improving European competitiveness. Many renewables are rapidly becoming competitive compared to conventional energy sources and European industry is among the world leaders in this field. It is also worth noting that the export potential for renewable energy technologies is considerable.

In some Member States good progress has been achieved. The Green Paper, however, highlights the very large differences in renewable energy market penetration in the various Member States, ranging from less than 1% in some member States to close to one quarter of gross inland energy consumption in others. Obviously geographical and climatic difference account for some of these differences. In addition, however, energy policy factors play a considerable role.

The Commission is of the opinion, that overall, market penetration of renewables is not satisfactory. Currently these energy sources make up less than 6% of the Community energy balance. There are many reasons for this disappointingly low exploitation of renewables. First of all it has to be recognised that changes in the energy sector do not happen overnight. Therefore there is a political need to stimulate new ideas. There are also a number of more specific problems which must be tackled. These include questions related to energy prices which currently do not reflect external cost imposed on society. Lack of European standards, difficulties in obtaining finance, connection to networks, lack of information, are other obstacles to be overcome.

The Green Paper puts forward a number of ideas as to how these obstacles can be dismantled. The Commission in this context believes that setting a Community target could be a good stimulus for action. It would focus the minds of decision-makers and it would make it easier to monitor and measure progress. A quantitative target should be realistic and ambitious. The Green Paper argues that the objective of doubling the contributions from renewables by 2010 corresponds to these criteria. If this can be achieved renewable energy would contribute approximately 12% to gross EU inland consumption by 2010.

The Commission would also like to see improved co-operation between the Member States on national policy measures affecting renewable energy. This is necessary to avoid distortion of competition on the energy markets and to ensure that successful national initiatives are disseminated throughout the EU. The Commission in October 1996 submitted a proposal to the Council and the European Parliament on 'Organisation of cooperation around agreed Community Objectives'. This proposal will, if adopted, provide a good framework for improved cooperation with the Member States, also on renewable sources of energy.

The Green Paper furthermore argues that there is a good case for examining how existing Community policies can be strengthened to promote renewables. The effects of the internal energy market must be analysed to see if there is a need to introduce specific measures for renewables as a consequence of market liberalisation. Taxation and standards are good examples of areas, where a special effort could be made. The same is true for research and development, where efforts must be well focused with sufficient and correctly allocated budgetary means. Regional and agriculture policies are also important, not least in the key area of biomass production. Finally, renewables are not only important in the European Union. Therefore the advantages of renewable energy must also be taken into account in our cooperation with, for example, developing countries.

These are some of the most important points raised in the Green Paper. The Commission has received a very large number of reactions to the Green Paper. In fact, approximately 70 position papers have been received from a wide range of different organisations and associations, ranging from the renewables energy associations, trade unions, environmental organisations, traditional energy associations, and organisations representing consumers and industry. A number of energy departments and energy agencies of the Member States have also reacted formally. In addition to commenting on the ideas voiced in the Green Paper itself, many contributions put forward specific suggestions as to the possible content of an Action Plan for renewable energy. In that sense the contributions provide a highly useful input to the Commission´s further work, i.e. the establishment of a White Paper and the Action Plan.

In addition to the written contributions, the Commission organised a one-day conference in Brussels on 21 March 1997 to specifically discuss the Green Paper and the way forward. More than 200 people representing all interested parties attended the conference which was opened by Commissioner Papoutsis. The speakers also included prominent members of other Community institutions, i.e. the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Furthermore, the Commission together with the European Solar Council organised a conference in Athens, Greece in May 1997 on renewable energy at which the Green Paper was also extensively discussed.

The Council debated the Green Paper for the first time at the Energy Council on 3 December 1996. Commissioner Papoutsis on this occasion presented the Green Paper which was subsequently the subject of an open debate. The Presidency, held by the Netherlands during the first half of 1997, placed the issue high on their agenda and on its proposal, the Council on 27 May 1997 adopted a Council Resolution on renewable energy sources which provides useful guidelines for the Commission´s further work. The Presidency also took the initiative to launch a specific debate on the use of fiscal instruments for the promotion of renewables on which subject a seminar took place in the Hague on 11 March 1997.

The European Parliament on 6 February nominated Mrs Metchild Rothe from the European Socialist Party (PSE) rapporteur on the Green Paper. On the basis of a Report drafted by Mrs Rothe the European Parliament on 15 May 1997 adopted a Resolution on renewable energy sources. In its Resolution the European Parliament strongly urges the Commission to pursue effective and ambitious policies in this area and puts forward a number of concrete proposals in this respect. The European Parliament also proposes to set the objective of replacing at least 15% of primary conventional energy consumption in the EU by 2010.

Having staged comprehensive discussion on renewable sources of energy, the Economic and Social Committee at the end of April 1997 adopted a favourable opinion on the Green Paper as did Commission 5 of the Committee of the Regions on 3 April 1997. Both the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions are thus in favour of reinforcing Community policies on renewable energies.

One important objective of the Green Paper was to stimulate a European-wide debate on renewable sources of energy. This objective has by now been largely achieved and renewables have been placed high on the agenda in the EU energy policy debate. Nonetheless, an important part of the process remains to be completed. The White Paper and the Action Plan is scheduled to be tabled during the second half of 1997. The Commission´s intention is to submit an ambitious and well-balanced plan for strengthening the development and the utilisation of renewables in the European Union.

The EU´s energy situation calls for good management of all available energy resources. Renewable sources of energy, being indigenous and inherently clean, cannot be neglected. Time has come to place a coherent and ambitious Community strategy on rails towards the 21st Century.

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