Thursday, January 11, 2007 North County Times
Europe to lay out plan
to tackle energy dilemma
An energy crunch that chokes
fuel supplies, dims the lights at homes and workplaces,
and ravages Western economies may no longer be the
stuff of 1970s history books. It could be a vision
of the near future.
The 1970s oil crisis gave Western countries a glimpse
of what life is like when the energy supply isn't
enough to go around.
Worried that an even bigger
crisis lies in wait, the European Commission is presenting
an energy "roadmap" on Wednesday that aims to steer
the bloc's 490 million people in a different direction.
The policies, of unprecedented scope, will carry a
plain warning: High and volatile oil prices, surging
demand, unreliable supplies and global warming compel
Europe to reconfigure its energy supply before it's
It is Europe's response to one of the defining global
problems of the 21st century.
"It's the biggest issue. It affects all of us. Just
try living without energy for a few days," said Elena
Nekhaev, director of programs at the London-based
World Energy Council, a non-governmental organization.
The European Union, the second-largest consumer of
energy in the world after the United States, is also
the largest energy importer, looking abroad for just
over half the energy it needs.
Within 20 years, at current rates of consumption,
the EU could depend on foreign suppliers for 70 percent
of its energy, the Commission says.
The EU's blueprint, sketched out over the past year,
plots a different path: lower energy consumption,
the development of renewable sources and research
into other alternatives, and ways of cutting carbon
emissions from fuels already in use, particularly
But changing course won't be easy, experts say.
"Making a change is like trying to turn a supertanker
around," says John Loughhead, executive director of
the U.K. Energy Research Center in London.
"Change requires a really enormous effort. The big
debate is, who is going to pay for it and equally,
are people willing to make the modifications that
will be needed to do it," he said.
Are Europeans ready to change the habits of a lifetime?
Shoulder the added costs of research? Open the door
wider to nuclear power? Surrender their countryside
to fields of wind turbines and solar panels?
Eero Heinaluoma, the finance minister of Finland who
recently headed a group of experts reporting on the
European energy sector, detects a shift in public
He says public alarm over possible climate change
coupled with last year's spike in oil prices, which
provided a 1970s-style jolt, brought a tipping point
that will inspire "a third industrial revolution."
"You can really feel the change," he said. "People
are now really worried."
Other observers, though, fear governments may balk
at signing up to drastic changes that could cause
a backlash at the ballot box.
The European Renewable Energy Council, a Brussels-based
industry group, says all but two of the European Union's
27 member states -- Germany and Denmark -- are shying
away from binding targets for renewable energy production
that are a central plank of the new policy.
EU nations generate only 6 percent of their energy
from renewable sources and almost all of that is hydropower
from dams, according to the European Commission, which
wants an agreed target of 15 percent by 2015.
Any political hesitation will hurt development of
the alternative energy sector, EREC's policy director
Oliver Schaefer says.
"Investors need a stable political framework," he
Private investment is vital if the new energy plan
is to gain traction. State subsidies alone are unlikely
to meet the challenge of developing alternative energy
sources, analysts say, as voters balk at possible
The equipment, installation and maintenance of "intermittent"
renewable sources, such as solar or wind energy, are
still significantly more expensive than traditional
fuels. The bill for wind turbines, which on average
turn between 20-30 percent of the time, comes in at
about $1,300 per kilowatt of installed capacity. Gas
turbines cost less than half that, according to the
World Energy Council.
The intermittent sources are also unreliable. A cloudy,
windless day consigns solar panels and wind turbines
to idleness -- which is why at the moment they account
for less than 1 percent of Europe's energy production.
Expanding their use requires lower costs and a major
engineering breakthrough in energy storage technology.
Still, wind and solar power are creating a stock market
buzz as investors stake cash on an anticipated major
The $450 million listing in November of French company
EDF Energies Nouvelles, which has operations in nine
European countries and the United States, on the Euronext
stock exchange was heavily oversubscribed. Its shares
leapt more than 16 percent on their first day of trading
and have remained steady.
General Electric Co. aims to double its annual sales
of environmentally friendly products to $20 billion
by 2010, from $10 billion in 2004.
Michael Liebreich, CEO of London-based research firm
New Energy Finance, says the investment market for
clean energy companies gathered momentum this year
after President Bush's encouragement of new energy
sources in his State of the Union speech.
Britain's publication of the Stern report on global
warming, and the ratification by 165 countries of
the Kyoto Protocol which calls for steep cuts in carbon
dioxide emissions, provided another push.
New Energy Finance predicts that $70.9 billion will
be spent worldwide this year on developing renewable
"There's a realization ... that a transformation of
the world's energy architecture is going on," Liebreich
said. "Financial investors see this as a place to
Germany, whose latest generation of five-megawatt
wind turbines are more than 300 feet across, and Denmark
already harvest around 20 percent of their electricity
from the wind. Other EU nations are expected to follow
Germany is also in front in solar power. It has almost
10 million square feet of panels -- about half the
EU total. Austria, Greece, Spain and France also plan
major solar investments.
Portugal, Western Europe's poorest nation and almost
entirely dependent on imported energy, has assembled
some of the world's most innovative renewable energy
The Portuguese are developing the world's first commercial
wave power station off the country's Atlantic coast.
A solar power plant in the sunny south will be the
world's largest, with more than 52,000 solar panels
covering 645,000 square feet, when it comes on line
this month. Enough wind farms to power some 750,000
homes have obtained government approval and the project
brought much-needed jobs to the area.
The goal is to enhance the country's self-reliance
-- a kind of reverse globalization, turning to backyard
However, experts say renewable sources cannot provide
a comprehensive solution in the short term.
"It's difficult to see any scenario in which fossil
fuels are not still the dominant (European energy)
source in 2050," says Loughhead of the U.K. Energy
Even so, alternative sources are an important part
of the new mix, endowing Europe's traditional energy
structure with more flexibility.
The European Commission envisions biofuels from plants
and waste accounting for 8 percent of energy consumption
within 10 years -- and replacing 20 percent of oil
products for road transport by 2020.
The public remains jittery about nuclear power stations,
which provide about 15 percent of Europe's electricity
and 80 percent in France.
Scientists are trying to overcome the engineering
challenges of nuclear fusion reactors. Operating with
lithium and water, they produce less radioactive waste
than fission reactors of the kind that exploded and
caught fire in Chernobyl in 1986.
Seven partners -- the United States, the European
Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea
-- agreed in November to build an experimental $13.3
billion fusion reactor at Cadarache, in southern France.
But figuring out how to make it work on a practical
scale will take decades of research.
In the meantime, the Commission wants Europeans to
cut back on their energy usage, seeking a 20 percent
reduction in consumption by 2020.
It recommends some simple steps, such as avoiding
use of the standby button on appliances which, it
says, drains away almost 7 percent of Europe's electricity
Yet whatever road the continent follows, Nekhaev of
the World Energy Council says global warming is a
worldwide problem, not just a European one -- so help
should also be provided to less developed countries
so they can pursue their own energy alternatives.
"We're all in the same boat and we have to make sure
that the boat isn't the Titanic," she said.
On the Net:
World Energy Council: http://www.worldenergy.org
U.K. Energy Research Center: http://www.ukerc.ac.uk
European Renewable Energy Council: http://www.erec-renewables.org
New Energy Finance: http://www.newenergyfinance.co