Can we still be friends?

November 12, 2012 | 00:00

Can we still be friends?

Will the Eurozone crisis be followed by an Energyzone crisis this winter? The Czechs have warned the Germans they will shut their grid to German power exports if blackouts threaten. The Germans and Austrians for their part, fearing a Fukushima-disaster in their backyard, are calling on the Czechs not to build any new nuclear power reactors. The energy divisions across Europe are running ever deeper.

Article 176-A of the Lisbon Treaty says that "Union policy on energy shall aim, in a spirit of solidarity between Member States, to: (a) ensure the functioning of the energy market; (b) ensure security of energy supply in the Union; (c) promote energy efficiency and energy saving and the development of new and renewable forms of energy; and (d) promote the interconnection of energy networks."

Sounds great. The Treaty then adds, however, that "Such measures shall not affect a Member State's right to determine the conditions for exploiting its energy resources, its choice between different energy sources and the general structure of its energy supply".

In other words, in energy national self-determination comes first, solidarity second.

Admittedly, in view of the radically different viewpoints on the desirable "energy mix" that are prevalent in the various EU Member States, there really is no other option. There is no way in which countries like Germany, Poland, Austria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy and France – to name just a few! – could be made to see eye to eye on what energy sources they should develop and how. When it comes to an issue like nuclear power, the divisions are simply unbridgeable. They are cultural even more than economic or political. But even with regard to something like renewable energy, each EU Member State has its own support schemes and preferences.

Yet at the same time the EU is moving inexorably towards an integrated "internal" European energy market. Interconnections between national markets are steadily being expanded. Cross-border trade is growing. Large energy companies have long since become European rather than national players.

Inevitably this contradiction between national energy policies and European market integration is leading to growing tensions. German energy policy in particular may be seen as the bull in the EU energy china shop. Germany pulled the plug on nuclear power without consulting with its neighbours. It has also embarked on a huge expansion of renewable energy without bothering too much about what this means for neighbouring countries with which it has grid connections.

This German alleingang is leading to strong resentment among some of the Central European states, as our Berlin correspondent Paul Hockenos found out when he attended a German-Czech energy forum recently in the Czech town of Ostrava. He was amazed by the open display of irritations between the Germans, Czechs, and other participants.

The Czechs told the Germans in no uncertain terms that they will not accept massive overloads of intermittent renewable energy spilling across their borders anymore, if this threatens to upset their own energy balance. They also said they will go ahead with their nuclear plans: they have put out a tender to build two new nuclear power reactors at the existing Temelin nuclear power plant site – at a stone’s throw from the German border.

The Germans and Austrians are deeply upset by this: they greatly fear a new Chernobyl in their backyard. So, as Paul reports, we are now seeing the interesting spectacle of a grassroots movement in one country (Germany) opposing a nuclear power project in another country.

So what to do? David Buchan, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, once suggested that the Lisbon Treaty should be amended to require Member States to at least consult with each other before they make major changes to their energy mix. But that could only happen of course if a new Treaty were to come on the table.

Another solution may perhaps lie in increased decentralisation of energy supplies in Europe. Call it the Danish way.

Renowned energy author (and very, very long-time nuclear critic!) Walt Patterson recently travelled to north-western Denmark and was astounded by how far the Danes have progressed in their pursuit of a fossil-free energy future, dominated by largely decentralised renewable energy systems.

He returned with a fascinating account of how local communities can seize control of their energy systems and create their own sustainable energy future. Here, new nuclear power stations are definitely not part of the plan.

In any case, what all this means is that we have two great new original stories for you today, both of which are sure to start you thinking. Don’t miss them.


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