It is EU energy policy to have 20% of power generation from renewables by 2020, but member states have individual targets, with discretion about how these targets will be achieved. Progress has been patchy. For example, only 5% of Luxembourg’s power comes from renewables whilst in Germany it is 28%. There are variations in the use of coal. Poland is heavily coal-reliant whereas in France coal fuels less than 5% of power. The Netherlands is a lead user of gas at 53% whilst gas accounts for just 6% of Germany’s power generation. Therefore, energy policies are as much determined by a country’s fuel resources as by politicians.
Across Europe, there is a spectrum of views on energy. Extreme right-wing parties, such as Britain’s UKIP, Poland’s United Poland Party and France’s National Front, deny the existence of climate change and oppose renewables such as wind and solar power on ideological grounds. Equally fervently, the Environmentalist parties positioned on the left, including Die Grünen of Austria and Germany, the UK’s Green Party and Scotland’s SNP, are totally opposed to nuclear power and fossil fuels including shale gas. The mainstream governing centre parties including Germany’s Christian Democrats and Spain’s People’s Party seem to be regretting their initial enthusiastic support of renewables given the present economic climate and the very high cost of subsidies. Political leaders now have to balance tough economic realities with often conflicting public environmental aspirations. A case in point is the UK where strong public opposition to hydraulic fracturing for shale gas conflicts with enthusiastic government support. This feature will therefore offer a snapshot of the different viewpoints for the role of renewables, shale gas, coal and nuclear power across Europe.
The Green Party has encouraged Germany to speed up its dash for renewables envisaging that by 2040, renewables will fuel power generation for 65%. This will mean a reduction of nuclear, coal and gas power generation in the quest to tackle climate change. Under the Green’s pressure, the German Parliament has enacted a legally binding commitment to cut German greenhouse gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020 irrespective of the impact on German industry, competitiveness or jobs.
In France, there is growing political support for renewables from both Socialist President François Hollande’s government, from coalition partner, the Greens and opposition parties. Energy Minister Ségolène Royal has set a tentative target for renewables to provide 32% of the country’s final energy consumption by 2030. In the UK, in the face of opposition by both the Labour Party and Scottish Nationalist Party, the new Conservative government will stop new subsidies for onshore wind turbines.
Hydraulic fracturing for Shale gas
Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas has proved contentious across Europe. Whilst France, Germany and Bulgaria have declared a moratorium on fracking, both the Polish and British government, support the quest for shale gas as a means to increase energy security although, as yet, evidence on commercial viability is lacking. In France attitudes are changing as reflected in Energy Minister Ségolène Royal’s comment "if new technologies that aren't dangerous emerge, why not?” as reported by The Connexion. There would be support from the opposition conservative UMP, led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who stated “I cannot tolerate that the United States has become energy independent thanks to shale gas, when in the same time, France cannot benefit from this new energy source, in a country where entire areas and local communities are devastated by unemployment. It is an unacceptable situation”, reported industry newswire Natural Gas Europe. A political consensus appears to be developing in favour of fracking.
In Germany, the decision to shut down nuclear plants and the prioritisation of distributed renewables at the expense of gas has boosted coal, reported Not A Lot Of People Know That on March 10, 2015. By 2020, Germany is expected to have opened at least 7 new coal-fired power stations. The 2020 target for CO2 emissions has been debated and revisions proposed in response to economic conditions and perhaps, to the SPDs Federal and Regional power base in coal mining and power generation constituencies. Other parties, whilst not opposing new coal power stations, insist on environmentally friendly technology, capable of being fitted with carbon capture and storage technology, when it becomes commercially feasible. Specifically, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) supports coal power as a method to balance-out power fluctuations. However, Reuters reports, that there are plans to phase out coal which opposition Green party complain are not fast enough!
In Poland, the ruling governing party socialist Civic Platform plans to diversify the country’s power generation mix, in favour of gas, nuclear and renewables in response to the EU's decarbonisation policy, aged loss-making coal mines and the availability of cheap American and Russian coal. However, Poland’s Deputy Economy Minister Jerzy Pietrewicz says the country will not increase the number of coal power plants but will instead focus on making existing plants more efficient.
Japan’s nuclear accident in 2011 further encouraged Germany’s concerted cross-party opposition to nuclear power. A decommissioning programme to close all nuclear power plants by 2022 is currently under way alongside a further push for renewables which now account for 28% of electricity generation. At the same time, Germany still relies heavily on coal powered generation with its consequent emissions and is confronted with high costs for households and expensive subsidies to energy intensive industries, viewed as anti-competitive, by Brussels, reported the Financial Times.
Moving in the opposite direction, the in the election 2015 Manifesto of the newly re-elected British governing Conservative Party, it supports nuclear power and hopes to finalise agreement on 12 new nuclear reactors at five sites to be built by 2030, providing the financial, construction and design issues are resolved. In contrast, in France cross-party support for nuclear is eroding as the cost of the requisite post Fukushima safety upgrades, delays in the construction of the Flamanville 3 plant in Normandy and the high cost of replacing ageing plants becomes apparent. Hugely expensive nuclear with matching electricity prices underpins President Hollande’s decision to reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear from 75% today to 50% by 2025, reported the French newswire The Local on October 10, 2014.
Excluding the Green parties, political support for nuclear, fossil fuels and renewables will take into consideration not only Europe’s decarbonisation objectives but also energy security and economic competitiveness. It is also clear that the new technological solutions are creating for political policy makers in Europe new options in their tool box for determining Europe’s energy future. Whilst it is perhaps ironic that Europe’s Green parties continue to ignore the hard economic realities that their solutions are having on the pockets of hard working Europeans. As for Europe’s anti-climate change parties, their ideology means they will never recognise truth!
Image: Wolf Ridge Wind Farm in Muenster, Texas by Ben. Licensed under CC BY.