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.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Blue Square Thing

17 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Albert Saxén

    I dn kno about cleaner than any other ..nuclear yea ok there is the waste ..but it still is not in the same cat.
    That w fossil fuels.. is the solution.
    This is not to say that, even if so, renewables wldnt be useful. It’s gd we look for them. Like GTLs is extremely interesting.

    t least to me.

  2. avatar
    Dr Hafez Abdo

    Clean energy! this is a wonderful dream. clean energy comes from renewables, these are an expensive options now and excisive dependance on these options would lead to an increase in energy prices, compared to non-renewable options. If this to happen, energy security would be shaken for most of the EU member states and fuel poverty would be deepened more and more.
    The Arab Gulf Countries (AGC) are the cheapest sources for non-renewables, they in fact a cheap sourse of renewables as well. Is there any thoughts of pushing investments into the AGC on the short, meduim or longer-term to generate clean, cheaper and sufficinet clean energy from these countries? if not, why not?

  3. avatar
    Dr Hafez Abdo

    Gas is not the cleanest, but probably the cheapest, sourse of energy sourse that is available in sufficinet quantities currently. Gas is available in countries outside the EU and being imported to warm European houses. Therefore, if earth is not available sufficinetly in Europe to generate electricity from cleaner renewable sources it is for sue avalaible in other countries. I see that it is the responsibility of the developed countries to push investments into cleaner energy wherever it exists as the World is a small village now, and carbon emission is not the responsibility of only one country or state. This is the responsibility of every country, society and individual person. Energy Policies should focus more on cleaner greener generation of energy rather than on supplying energy from a given region to be consumed in that same region.

  4. avatar
    David Elliott

    A common factor in the (to me) inspiring energy policies of (amongst many others), Austria, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Scotland, is opposition to nuclear, which is allowing them to move ahead to fully sustainable energy future. I understand the need to allow EU member states to have their own policies, but some people worried about the risks of nuclear might argue that there comes a point in any community when dangerous anti- social behavour by some members has to be constrained. Are we at that point yet?

  5. avatar
    Nikolai Holmov

    Unfortunately despite my highlighting the energy legacy issue of alternative/green energy, Mr Egebo hardly touches on the true legacy, choosing only to talk about the produced panel.

    The true energy legacy comes with every kiln fired brick, every steel joist, every minute on every computer screen during R&D, every liter of petrol used to transport component parts, every watt of electricity etc used to built the factory in which the panels are made and maintain and run them. The panel itself adds only a very small percentage to the true energy legacy in the production cycle.

    As a civil engineer I can assure Mr Egebo that the true energy legacy of producing alternative/green energy sources is far greater than he has stated. That, however, is the whole point of this article – politicians not being honest about the energy legacy (let alone subsidies necessary) to make alternative energy cost effective or energy effective.

    There is no such thing as zero impact construction, production, or manufacture – that is a fallacy as any environmentally aware engineer will state.

    As and when we (hopefully) get to the point of factories built entirely of alternative energy sourced component parts (from bricks onwards), producing alternative energy producing technology, then we can begin to talk about a reduction in energy legacies that are worthy of note.

    In the meantime, it is pure political bluster from the political classes to ignore the entire energy legacy relating to alternative energy products produced in factories built from traditionally powered manufactured materials.

    Now, if Mr Egebo would like to nominate any alternative energy producer and their factory in Europe and go head to head with me as a civil engineer over the true energy legacy of a solar panel, wind turbine blade etc (his choice) when we consider the energy used to make each brick, screw, hinge, electric socket, light bulb, window, et al – I am ready!

  6. avatar
    Turean Rozalia Gyöngyi

    The water-energy -hydro-eneergy is the real future. Accumulation-lakes with intensive or extensive fisheries will be the warrancy for good quality drinkwater and in the same time they will be flood-protector buildings with with hidden turbine-system barrages.

  7. avatar
    Dirk Weimer

    The expenses for developing renewable energy, hidden or not, are irrelevant. The winner are the countries which are most independant on oil. The future will be a mix in gaining energy and a mix in energy-consumption ( D. Weimer, Electrical engineer)

  8. avatar
    Hélder Morgado

    I would like to now, why the electric automobile, don’t have solar panel on top, and eolic helice in front, it was more eficient. I have more ideas.

  9. avatar
    Patrick Chahuneau

    Avec l ecologie integriste rien n est possible. Il faut pratiquer avec leurs sels experts qualifies mondialement et scientifiquement, la raison d. Etat

  10. avatar
    Joseph Bartolo

    Very Well said Ana and their is others sources of Energy that can be used, such as Dark Energy that is very abundant is all around us on Planet Earth and Also that was refound my Nikola Tesla over 100 years so, No more harm to our planet, lets us all be guardians to our home planet for our children and our childrens children :) Lets look at the survival of all life on Earth on NOT from profiting :) Everyone has the full right to live their lives to the full, in the best and most respectible way :) <3

  11. avatar
    Tom Markowitz

    In our anxiety to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, we forget that the opportunities for energy conservation are much greater than the opportunities for renewable energy. The cleanest energy, and the cheapest energy, is the energy we don’t use.

    Simple technologies and changes in behaviour can achieve much cleaner use of energy at a low cost, and sometimes a negative cost. Planning communities around public transit, walking and bicycling can reduce emissions from motor vehicles more effectively than trying to convert the entire vehicle fleet to hydrogen fuel cells. Well insulated, shaded, white-roofed housing can reduce the emissions from air conditioning much more effectively than photovoltaic-powered air conditioners. Turning off the lights in empty rooms can reduce emissions from electricity generation more effectively than building more wind turbines.

    If energy conservation is so effective, why are we not pursuing it aggressively? Our values need to change, to replace our current culture of consumption with a culture of real sustainability. Our cultural values are the biggest barrier to achieving a clean energy future.

    Sustainability is a three-legged stool. The three legs are government leadership, new technology, and changing cultural values. If one of these legs is missing, the stool will collapse. The “solar revolution” of the 1980’s collapsed because two of the three legs were missing.

    In Europe in 2012, efforts to achieve clean energy are frustrated by challenging economic conditions and by a lack of harmonization among the various states. In these economic conditions, energy conservation can achieve clean energy targets at a much lower cost than expensive renewable energy technologies. At the same time, the various states must harmonize their energy policies and planning, e.g. if one state bans the sale of incandescent light bulbs, we do not want to see shoppers sneaking over the border to another state to buy light bulbs.

    Energy conservation can be achieved by implementing a wide range of policies and programs, harmonized across the EU. These policies and programs include policy decisions, regulations, guidelines, taxes and fees, information campaigns, promotion, government purchase, technology development, codes and standards…….real leadership!

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