European Commission Offers Renewable Energy Action Plan

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 8, 2005 (ENS) - A detailed action plan designed to increase the use of energy from forestry, agriculture and waste materials has been adopted by the European Commission. The plan outlines measures in three sectors - heating, electricity and transport.

Andris Piebalgs, Commissioner for Energy, announced the new plan on Wednesday, saying, “This plan will reduce Europe’s dependence on imported energy, cut greenhouse gas emissions, protect jobs in rural areas and extend the EU’s technological leadership in these sectors."

"The measures in favor of transport biofuels, in particular, are a practical response to the problem of high oil prices," Piebalgs said.

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Andris Piebalgs of Latvia is Commissioner for Energy of the European Union. (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
In parallel, the Commission adopted a report on the different support schemes of electricity from renewable energy sources which concludes that governments need to step up efforts to cooperate among themselves, optimize their supports and remove administrative and grid barriers for green electricity.

In the context of security of supply, the EU’s increasing dependency on oil and gas imports, constantly rising oil prices and EU commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the development of renewable energy remains high on the agenda of European energy policy.

However the take-off of renewable energy is still on hold with prospects of only nine to 10 percent for the share of renewables in the EU energy mix by 2010 instead of the 12 percent target. The Commission has decided to propose an ambitious action plan to promote the use of biomass energy, a renewable source of energy with a huge potential.

Biomass energy includes transport biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel made mostly from cereal, sugar and oil seed crops and waste oils. It includes domestic biomass heating using wood and wood residues, and the burning of wood wastes and straw in power plants to produce electricity and heat.

The plan announces more than 20 actions; most of them will be implemented from 2006 onwards. For transport biofuels, they include promotion of “biofuels obligations,” through which suppliers include a minimum proportion of biofuels in the conventional fuel they place on the market.

In 2006, the Commission will bring forward a report in view of a possible revision of the biofuels Directive of 2003. This report will examine the implementation of the Directive in Member States. The EU market share is currently 0.8 percent which leaves little chance to achieve by 2010 the target of 5.75 percent that was set in 2003 for the European Union as a whole.

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Forty new Ford Focus Flexi-Fuel Vehicles (FFVs), the first manufactured bioethanol-powered car in Europe, will soon be on the roads in Somerset, UK as part of Somerset County Council’s goal to drive down CO2 emissions – the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. (Photo courtesy Somerset County Council)
The plan includes reviews of how fuel standards could be improved to encourage the use of biomass for transport, heating and electricity generation; investment in research, in particular in making liquid fuels out of wood and waste materials; and a campaign to inform farmers and forest owners about energy crops.

The Commission will also work on future EU legislation to encourage the use of renewable energy in heating.

The Commission estimates that the measures in the plan will double the use of biomass without increasing the intensity of agriculture or affecting domestic food production.

It forecasts that this will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 209 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year; provide direct employment for at least 250,000 people; and reduce reliance on imported energy from 48 percentto 42 percent.

As the European Commission releases its Biomass Action Plan, BirdLife International warns that the EU must put in place strong environmental safeguards. Without these, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be negligible and impacts on the broader environment will be severe, the conservation organization said.

BirdLife, along with WWF, Greenpeace, and the European Environmental Bureau representing 143 member organizations in 31 countries, believes that bioenergy can become a key source of energy in the future, and welcomes the EU's efforts to increase its use. However there are serious concerns that the EU Biomass Action Plan does not guarantee environmental and social safeguards.

These measures should apply to both European and imported bioenergy, and include checks on the greenhouse gas balance of the crop, the conservationists said.

Due to their high level of inputs during the cultivation and transformation phases, they said, certain biomass production systems result in levels of greenhouse gas emissions which are not much lower than those of fossil fuels.

The impact of biomass production on biodiversity, water and soil needs to be taken into account. This is already a major problem in the tropics, where millions of hectares of forest have already been converted into soya, sugarcane and palm oil plantations.

"Travelling in a car fuelled by biodiesel seems like a great, environmentally-friendly thing to do," said BirdLife's Ariel Brunner. "However, if the biodiesel has come from soya planted in the Brazilian Amazon or palm oil from Indonesia, the green consumer is likely to be unwittingly driving another nail into the coffin of the world's great ecosystems."

"Large scale biomass plantation projects like the massive planned oil palm plantation in Kalimantan, Indonesia, entail the destruction of vast swathes of rainforest," said Jean-Philippe Denruyter, Climate Change and Energy Policy Officer at WWF. "This not only affects valuable ecosystems, but contributes to climate change as the rainforests are an important carbon sink."

The conservation groups are calling on the EU to ensure such projects will not be supported through biofuel imports into EU member states.

The report on support of electricity from renewable energy, also adopted by the European Commission Wednesday, concludes that more than half of the 25 EU member states are not giving enough support to green electricity.

The Commission considers that direct support measures will remain essential in the future to ensure sufficient market penetration of green electricity and calls on member states to optimize their support plans and remove barriers.

The report finds that feed-in tariffs, which are fixed prices for green electricity and used in the majority of member states, are currently cheaper and more effective than so called quota systems, especially in the case of wind energy.

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GE turbines at 15MW Bockelwitz Wind Power Facility, Germany (Photo courtesy GE)
One reason for quota systems being more expensive is probably the higher risk for investors due to immature green electricity markets, the report finds.

The Commission concludes that it is premature to propose a harmonized European support scheme. Competing national schemes can be healthy at least in a transitional period, as more experience needs to be gained, and industry needs regulatory stability to make investments and develop renewables, the Commission said.

In the short and medium term, member states are asked to coordinate the existing schemes at the European level.

To remove barriers to the development of green electricity, administrative requirements should be reduced, the Commission said, emphasizing that clear guidelines, one-stop authorization agencies, pre-planning mechanisms and simpler procedures are needed.

Transparent and non-discriminatory grid access must be ensured and necessary grid infrastructure development should be undertaken, with the associated costs covered by grid operators.