The Danish Presidency of the Council of the EU is drawing to a close, and it’s now only a few weeks before Cyprus takes over on 1st July 2012. Denmark has made the environment a priority for its six month Presidency, but the Eurozone crisis has made this a difficult juggling act to pull off. With talks on a new EU Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) yesterday reported to be on a “knife-edge” (and with critics accusing it of having been “watered down” from the original Commission proposal), few EU member states are willing to be seen by electorates as prioritising the environment over job creation and growth right now.
Following our interview with Ida Auken, the Danish Environment Minister, we had the chance to put some more of your comments and questions to Thomas Egebo, Permanent secretary of State at the Danish Ministry of Climate and Energy. Most of your comments were about how to balance the competing demands of the economy and the environment, particularly with unemployment as high as it is in parts of Europe.
With the EU heavily reliant on oil and natural gas from politically unstable parts of the world, and with the challenge of climate change growing more accute, how can Europe secure clean, cheap and reliable energy for its future? Renewable technologies are often touted as the answer, but our first comment (from Nikolai) cautions against seeing them as a completely “clean” solution: “Why does no politician ever address the ‘energy legacy’ of R&D and green production? Every solar panel produced uses rare earths, silver, components etc., all of which are designed, gathered, manufactured, transported and assembled by those using traditional methods. Every solar panel has an energy legacy far greater than the life-span of the solar panel.”
Interesting question! It is correct that solar PV (photovoltaic) cell and panel manufacturing use many elements, including silver and various rare earths. As regards silver, the PV industry is working hard to reduce the amount of silver simply because of its increasing cost. As far as I know, the PV industry is foreseeing a reduction of the amount of silver used by a factor 10 in 2020.
The amount of rare earth elements going into the PV industry is so far quite limited in comparison to the electronic industry and the manufacturing of various displays and screens. Many of these rare elements are by-products of e.g. aluminum and zinc production. But the industry may face constraints accessing some rare elements if the use of PV thin-film production, which at present only accounts for around 10% of the global PV production volume, really takes off in the future, using today’s technology.
The energy pay-back time (EBPT) is – according to many international institutions, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) – rather low – below 2 years and still decreasing. That means that it takes less than two years for a PV system in operation to produce as much energy as used to produce the PV. And the lifetime is certainly much longer than 2 years.
The next question comes from Christos, who wants to see more energy policies being jointly co-ordinated at the EU level: “We need to agree on a pan-European level where can we draw renewable energy from, and in what ways. We’ve got sun and wind in the Southern states; wind and sea currents in the Northern states. If we could set up European companies to develop and exploit all these resources so that each country benefits first and then share those benefits with the other member states, then it would be the first step.“
Very good points! This is actually something which is already in progress. The challenge is not so much to set-up the companies but rather to stream line legislative procedures across borders so as to ensure a predictable horizon for permits when building cross-border infrastructure i.e. transmission lines to interconnect renewables and other energy sources on an EU-wide scale. On the concrete proposal being deliberated among the European states right now, you can read more on the Commission’s website (here).
To complete the internal market, the EU needs an integrated, well functioning market for energy. An internal energy market will encourage competition and ensure better prices on energy for consumers. It will contribute to more efficient use of our energy resources and strengthen Europe’s energy security. Europe needs to enhance the production and consumption of renewable energy to secure a stable energy supply and green our economies. The Danish EU Presidency will work to advance negotiations on the Commission’s proposal for an Energy Infrastructure package.
We also had a question from Drew, who was sceptical about the economics of renewable energy: “I totally support the implementation of renewables as quickly as possible, but I don’t believe business interests are going to let that happen. To me, it looks like so much natural gas is going to be available through unconventional gas sources (and LNG shipments that have been freed up from shale gas) that it will make renewables look exorbitantly expensive in contrast, especially as we struggle with the precarious state of the world economy.”
I agree that it may look like that from one perspective. Let me state a couple of points, however. One must remember that conventional natural gas is a low carbon source compared to coal and can be seen as the most realistic “stepping stone” moving towards a low-carbon society in 2050. In terms of unconventional sources it is still too early to assess the real cost of extraction, not less the environmental cost. These costs will have to be factored into the equation. Taking the price-forecast for fossils as well as its short term price volatility, renewables like wind and solar have a more predictable and declining cost-curve. As the cost-base declines further, i.e. due to technological enhancements as we have recently seen in solar cell production and as is expected in future demand-response systems for all fluctuating power generation, renewables become even more competitive.
Finally, we had a question from Peter: “Diversity is the key to dealing with the world’s renewable energy requirements. Nuclear is remarkably clean, safe and powerful. By stopping using it we are, ourselves, depleting our potential for progress.“
In the transition to a low-carbon society, focus should be on replacing traditional fossil energy sources with clean, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. The prerogative for each country to choose its energy mix means that some countries choose to leave nuclear energy in the equation. As a non-nuclear nation, Denmark respects this, but we shall recall that nuclear incidents may have major cross-border effects. I therefore strongly support the EU’s effort to achieve maximum safety at the nuclear power plants.
What do YOU think? Are politicians ignoring the “hidden costs” of renewables (such as rare earths and other resources)? And is natural gas a much more cost-effective source of energy for Europe? Or should we see gas as a “transition” energy source to renewables, which are still much cleaner than any other energy source currently available? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers for their reactions.