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wind turbines and a rapeseed field
Renewable energy could completely power Europe in the futureImage: AP

EU energy policy

April 9, 2010

Experts agree that the farewell to coal, oil, gas and also nuclear power can already be implemented technically. But the transition to renewable energy lacks the necessary political framework and willpower.


Negotiators are meeting at the UN's climate body UNFCCC in Bonn this weekend for their first official talks since the disappointing Copenhagen summit in December. The extra meeting with representatives from 194 nations will focus on discussing the technical details of implementing the Kyoto Protocol.

For the European Union, climate protection does play a significant role on the bloc's agenda. A centerpiece of the EU's climate policy is boosting its renewable energy sector to supply 20 percent of the bloc's needs within the decade. That will mean more than doubling its current capacity.

a tgv train speeds past a nuclear plant in france
France is one of Europe's most enthusiastic users of nuclear powerImage: AP

For some countries, it's going to be tougher than for others. But Martin Rocholl, a policy director at the European Climate Foundation, said the goal is more than possible - provided Europeans overcome their typically national approach to energy policy.

"I think if there is a vision for 80 or 100 percent renewable and therefore totally carbon-free energy future for Europe, I would think that we could get the dynamic going," Rocholl said.

"We can show that if we Europeans work together, if we use the different sources that are spread around the continent and combine them with each other, we can actually reach this enormous aim of having a power sector that does not emit any greenhouse gases," he said.

Getting energy when it's needed

One of the main problems to afflict renewable energy to date is the reliability of supply. The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. But the grid always needs power, and sometimes it needs a lot at once. Rocholl said this problem for renewables could be offset, if European countries linked their projects.

"Maybe the wind blows at the Atlantic coast, but it doesn't blow in Poland. Or the wind blows in Poland, and it doesn't blow at the Atlantic coast," he said. "And while the sun shines more in the summer, the wind blows more in the winter."

solar panels on the roof of a house
Solar energy can be used effectively in private homesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

According to Rocholl, there were enormous capacities in hydro power in Norway and Switzerland which constantly produce electricity.

"If you can use those to fill in the gaps, when there is no sun and no wind at one time, you can actually buffer all these different renewable resources with each other," he said. "You come to the conclusion that it is actually not necessary to have a large buffer capacity." Two to five percent was enough, he added. "And it's not going to be more expensive than the business-as-usual scenario."

Indeed, the European Climate Foundation recently commissioned a number of consultancies to look into this. According to the findings, which are due out this month, the continent could meet 100 percent of its energy needs through renewables - if Europeans coordinated their grids sufficiently.

Energy beyond Europe's borders

Some players also want Europe to look beyond its borders for partners. The Desertec project, for example, aims to meet 15 percent of Europe's energy demand with solar power from deserts in North Africa and the Middle East. Friedrich Fuehr, a co-founder of Desertec, said the project will have the added benefit of promoting clean development for Africa, as well as providing clean energy for Europe.

"We would like to see that the local people will be enabled to run such a power plant, produce the components of it, so that it is their own solution," Fuehr said. "Of course, we always need the expertise of companies to do that, to own the products, but why should it not be possible that in the future, also African companies will be major players in solar power."

a desertec solar power facility
Desertec would collect energy from the desert sunImage: Solar Millennium AG, Erlangen

The initiative is still in its infancy. But it has attracted some high profile names, including the engineering firm Siemens, reinsurance company Munich Re and the ex-head of the UN Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, who is also a former German environment minister.

Feasibility studies are currently underway. Desertec will need to raise hundreds of billions of euros in financing. But the first power plant is expected to go online in 2015.

Questioning a single energy source

Markets have so far adopted a wait-and-see approach to the project. For critics, Desertec will remain a distant vision until the first power plant is switched on and delivers electricity at a competitive rate. Even some green activists have their misgivings, such as Felix Matthes from the Berlin-based eco-institute.

"The key question is, if the potential of solar energy in northern Africa will be required mainly for domestic use, or will there be surplus energy which could be supplied to Europe," Matthes said. "Because this question is still open, I'm rather skeptical to build an energy and climate policy on a significant energy supply from northern Africa."

Though proponents of renewable energies disagree on how much of this energy source Europe will be able to provide for itself - and how much it will still need to source from others - all agree that EU members will need to coordinate more closely if the bloc is to have any chance of ensuring that fossil fuels are phased out on the continent this century.

Author: Steffen Marquardt (sac)
Editor: Anke Rasper

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