Energy efficiency key to delivering long-term benefits

Michel Lebrun calls on the European council and commission to show the same ambition as the Committee of the Regions towards energy efficiency and renewable energy.

By Michel Lebrun

18 Dec 2014

Energy remains one of Europe's key issues in achieving growth and getting back on track. Across the Atlantic, the United States seems to be leaving behind its economic woes, which is in part driven by low energy prices. Understandably then, the new European commission has quite rightly placed energy at the top of its agenda, with a clear commitment to creating an energy union integrating all member states' energy markets together which, estimates suggest, could save Europe €40bn a year by 2030. A free energy market, though, cannot be an end in itself – a long-term sustainable and competitive sector must contribute to tackling climate change, increase energy efficiency and expand the renewable energy sector. Local and regional renewable energy markets can make a serious contribution to bringing down energy costs, tackling energy poverty and making Europe more competitive on the global stage. The question is how?

"We need a consistent national and EU-wide vision for energy efficiency, accompanied by earmarked EU funds, which would trigger more confidence among citizens and businesses"

If Europe is to strive towards ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy, with its sights set on becoming almost completely climate neutral by 2050, it is important to continue to refine and strengthen industrial policy by supporting sustainable energy investment. Targeted investment towards innovation will help avoid over-reliance on one single technology. That is why the Committee of the Regions (CoR) does not preach nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage or shale oil and gas as the miraculous solution for our energy security problems. Instead we should be working towards increasing energy efficiency. The ambition exists at local level, where more than 6000 towns and cities under the covenant of mayors initiative are committed to increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy use in our communities. We need a consistent national and EU-wide vision for energy efficiency, accompanied by earmarked funds, which increase confidence among citizens and businesses. Ambitious goals alone will not mobilise the public unless there is a real investment.

The new EU state aid guidelines should also be implemented in a way that does not burden small scale projects. At the same time, we would be more cautious, investing EU funds into new pipelines and gigantic inter-continental super high voltage electricity cables. Instead, EU money must be pumped into integrating locally produced renewable energy into the grid and used to support the development of smart distribution grids with transparent data for customers, so as to empower energy consumers.

With cheap money available and the new EU investment plan focused on energy, local and regional sustainable energy projects should be able to receive a higher percentage of cofinancing from EU funds than has been the case before now. This is because uptake of new technology, stimulation of economic activity and reduction of emissions, simultaneously with reduction of our dependency vis-à-vis unpredictable fossil fuel energy suppliers from third countries, are a way out of the crisis. Proposals for funding energy transition measures, particularly through the European investment bank could support existing or future local funding structures in addition to European funding for 2014-2020.

I call for a real commitment by the council and the commission to better adjust the funding priorities under the current financial framework to focus on our low carbon economy goals as many people feel that the efforts of the commission in this field have been at best half-hearted. The European council conclusions on energy efficiency and renewable energy in October fell short of the level of ambition shown by the CoR. We would have preferred to see binding targets for each individual member state. The internal energy market will inevitably cost citizens and businesses before it can deliver long-term benefits. Let's hope that when the new commission sets out its vision for an energy union it will heed this call, take the chance to support local energy projects, place a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and start creating a sustainable long-term energy market that will make Europe a major player once again.


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