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21st Jul 2018

Opinion

More commitment to renewables from Council, please

  • To install solar panels, there are sometimes as many as three permits a consumer needs to get – an environmental one, one for the building and another for the grid connection. (Photo: Austria Solar / ESTIF)

Perhaps a few EU ministers could do with a pep-talk at this week's informal Energy Council (19 April), as the EU enters its final set of talks to reform the EU's policy on renewables.

Back in 2016, the European Commission released a series of proposals entitled 'Clean Energy for All Europeans'. The name is fairly self-explanatory.

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  • Spain went from being among the frontrunners in renewable energy to now languishing far behind leaders Germany or Italy (Photo: Robert and Cathy)

The proposals came hot on the heels of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which all EU countries had committed themselves to. They were an attempt to make the 20th century electricity system look more like the one we will need in the future: one powered increasingly by renewable energy and whose benefits were open to all, not just the traditional suppliers.

Cheap and clean energy for households

The facts speak for themselves. The cost of solar panels has dropped on average by 10 percent every year since the 1980s, so much so that generating one's own electricity has in principle become cheaper than buying it from the grid in much of Europe.

Despite all this potential, the commission recognised there were reasons why masses of consumers were not queuing up for solar panels, so it set about removing some existing policy and administrative barriers. The parliament, under MEP Jose Blanco Lopez's leadership, announced it was willing to go even further than the commission.

Are EU countries getting cold feet?

But member states now seem to be pulling the handbrake on self-consumption, despite positive rhetoric from countries like France.

First, on taxes, whereas the European parliament wants to ban 'taxes on the sun', member states are reluctant to do any such thing. This is despite evidence that such a tax in Spain annihilated the rate at which solar panels were being installed.

Spain went from being among the frontrunners in renewable energy to now languishing far behind leaders Germany or Italy. The conclusion: taxing something people produce in their own home can kill it. And it is deeply unfair.

Second, the council has poured cold water over commission proposals to ensure there are buyers for the excess electricity consumers produce and want to sell to the grid.

Or said differently, that consumers get paid for the excess electricity they put into the grid at a fair price.

Member states are mistaken if they think household consumers have the time and energy to find buyers on the wholesale market, just like power companies do. This would be like sending cyclists to a motorway, when what they really need is a bike lane.

Third, the commission's proposal to simplify permitting procedures is another step in the right direction. To install solar panels, there are sometimes as many as three permits a consumer needs to get – an environmental one, one for the building and another for the grid connection.

Anything to simplify and shorten the procedure would help consumers-turned-producers. Again, member states seem to be against these proposals, wanting to retain their existing systems and opposing real change.

In with the new

These three areas are symptomatic of a greater problem: member states are not supportive enough of renewable energy. Are they worried about following up on pledges made in the Paris Agreement? Or are all those discussions about a green transition much ado about nothing?

One of the reasons could be that member states have got very cosy with the current set-up where energy companies just add more centralised generation when it's needed. Security of supply can be as daunting a challenge as climate change. And changing that model might be unnerving indeed.

But in the long-term, the vision of seeing solar panels on every rooftop is not only realistic, it is achievable, and it contributes to security of supply.

Consumers have so much to gain and the entire system will benefit from it. More and more consumers are likely to invest in solar panels in the future as it becomes simpler to produce one's own electricity.

One of the worst signals governments could now send to consumers is that it will be expensive and tiring to produce one's own electricity.

Abraham Lincoln once said that "commitment is what transforms a promise into reality". Those are words I will echo to today's EU energy ministers. The commitment is worth it.

Monique Goyens is director general of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation

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