Europe struggles with renewable energy target

Reports that Jose-Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, is considering withdrawing support for an extension of the EU’s renewable energy target beyond 2020 have caused a lot of discussion in Europe and beyond.

You can read an excellent and detailed commentary on the matter at http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/01/european-commission-president-could-sacrifice-renewable-energy-target-for-personal-legacy/. The whole issue shows just how complex it can be to craft a renewable target that works with your overall GHG emission reduction targets.

The struggle in this case is between the UK’s desire to investigate nuclear power to reduce its GHG emissions, and the European Union’s targets for renewable energy production as a part of an emission reduction strategy. The current legal framework allows countries with a large commitment to renewables, like Germany, to subsidize renewable energy generation heavily, since it meets an overall EU objective. The UK, meanwhile, which desperately needs to rebuild its nuclear power stations, is not allowed to favor nuclear power over renewables, because of the EU target. Barroso appears to favor abandoning the renewable energy target and to concentrate on the EU’s two other objectives: to reduce overall emissions, and to improve energy efficiency.

No doubt the EU, as usual, will cobble together a compromise solution to the conundrum. But there is a real issue here: is it really possible to put the brakes on GHG emissions without expanding the share of nuclear power in the generating mix? If you took all of the research that is going into wind and solar and dedicated it to making nuclear power safer, would you get a faster reduction in emissions? The answer is probably “yes”, but at the same time, private funding an expansion of nuclear power is probably a non-starter in many countries after the Fukushima incident, and antipathy to nuclear power is only growing in key areas, like Germany and Central Europe. Even in the USA, we are witnessing something of a dis-investment in nuclear power as companies put their faith in shale gas.

Perhaps the introduction of the “small modular reactor” or SMR in the USA, will provide a rethinking of nuclear policy and nuclear power implementation. SMRs are prefabricated nuclear reactors with about one third the generating capacity of today’s mega units. The advantages are that they can be fabricated and shipped to a site relatively quickly with much lower capital and construction costs, and the power produced can more easily be integrated into the existing grid. You can learn more about SMRs at the upcoming Electric Power Expo in New Orleans, from 1 to 3 April this year (see the conference program at http://www.electricpowerexpo.com/conference-grid/?track=a0HC000000SL0SxMAL#sessiona0FC000000jMK24MAG.

Meanwhile, the EU is demonstrating, whether it wishes to do so or not, that concentrating on one single approach to emissions reduction can ultimately prove counter-productive and expensive. Let’s see if the renewable energy target is finally extended. My guess is that it will not be.

 

 

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