Energy

When looking for scapegoats for the EU’s energy crisis and our dependence on Russian gas, it is all too easy to attack “district heating”.

District heating is the main way that cities are heated in eastern Europe and the Soviet-era infrastructure can often be wastefully inefficient, as we write about in a story today.

But don’t write it off too quickly. The truth is that western Europe is probably going to see a lot more of this technology in the next decade as it rethinks its urban energy consumption. Read more

Russia's Vladimir Putin at the launch of South Stream's Black Sea pipeline in 2012

Is it possible that, once again, one of Europe’s biggest strategic concerns ends up hinging on a Balkan intrigue?

This time, it is the Ukraine crisis, Europe’s fears about its energy security – and the influence of the king-making junior coalition party in the Bulgarian government, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

The concerns of Bulgaria’s small ethnic Turkish party may seem worlds away from the geopolitical confrontation between the Kremlin and the west. But on the group’s narrow shoulders could lie the fate of the landmark South Stream pipeline, a project that many believe will further cement Russia’s hold on Europe’s gas supplies. Read more

By Christian Oliver

Expectations from the EU’s 2030 energy and climate targets: The EU will on Wednesday propose a series of energy and climate targets that will have a profound impact on how the continent generates its power. The overarching goals will be accompanied by proposals on the development of shale gas and measures to rescue the EU’s carbon market, which has fallen into disarray. The measures are being hotly contested as the targets are seen as vital to determining power prices and industrial competitiveness.

Early drafts of the package and people close to the talks suggest that the following are the most likely outcomes: Read more

Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.

In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial. Read more

Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, proposed tweaking the biofuels policy last year

Among the EU’s less successful policies, the one governing biofuels looms as a particular case study in unintended consequences.

Five years ago, member states agreed to binding targets requiring each country to derive 10 per cent of all transport fuel from renewables by 2020. Those targets were meant to speed the adoption of environmentally-friendly biofuels and were part of a broader campaign by Brusselsto claim the lead in the fight against global warming.

These days, that policy is a mess. The increased demand for crop-based biofuels – made from corn, rape and soya, for example – has been blamed for a surge in world food prices. It also appears to contribute to deforestation as farmers in far corners of the world chop down rainforests to plant biofuel crops.

The EU is now seeking to correct that. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, made a new proposal last year that aims to phase out crop-based biofuels in favour of cleaner ones derived from waste products and algae, among other substances. The European parliament’s environment committee last week voted through its own version of the draft legislation.

But it seems even the revised biofuels policy may have its own unintended consequences, including a brewing fight between Europe’s oleochemicals industry – the folks who use processed animal fats to produce everything from lubricants to lipstick – and their suppliers. Read more

China’s solar panel manufacturers are facing an uphill battle in their legal fight against the EU, which last week targeted them as it launched the bloc’s biggest-ever an anti-dumping investigation. The case involves Chinese exports of solar panels, wafers and other products that totalled some €21bn last year.

More than half of such anti-dumping investigations result in tariffs being imposed, according to EU officials. Yet there are at least two technical factors at work in the solar dispute that could make the odds even worse for the Chinese. Read more

The European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the proposed Nabucco pipeline, a 3,900-kilometer behemoth that would carry natural gas from the Caspian region to Austria.

For the commission, Nabucco represents the backbone of a new southern corridor that would break Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. It has touted the project repeatedly over the years, and has also opened its wallet, committing up to €200m in funding.

But in a recent conversation with Brussels Blog, Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, made a departure from the usual script and gave support to the growing suspicion that the full Nabucco may be a lost cause. Read more

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the tidal wave that unleashed a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility and forced a profound shift in Europe’s nuclear debate.

Within weeks of the disaster, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decided to switch course and phase out the country’s nuclear plants – a move that was subsequently copied by Switzerland and Belgium.

Talk of a nuclear revival that once filled the air in Italy and other member states – encouraged by the industry and supportive governments – has been dashed. Even in France, Europe’s nuclear champion, public opinion has turned increasingly negative.

But in spite of Fukushima, one European Union member state has lost none of its nuclear ardour: LithuaniaRead more

When word filtered out on Tuesday that Russia’s Gazprom would be capping its gas shipments to the European Union, a shiver went through an unusually frigid Brussels.

After two major supply cuts in the last ten years – the most recent in 2009 – European policymakers have become conditioned to believe that any interruption in Russian gas may be the beginning of another full-blown crisis instigated by the Kremlin.

Gazprom said it was going to have to limit European sales in order to serve the needs of domestic consumers struggling through a cold winter. Fears appeared to subside a bit, though, when the company promised to try to make up the difference over the coming days.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the incident is how quickly it has become a non-event. The reason, according to EU officials, is that the continent learned the lessons from the last gas crisis and has worked to make itself far less vulnerable to future Russian shocks. Read more

In the corridors of Brussels’ elegant Stanhope Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, the well-turned-out movers-and-shakers of the European energy world were marvelling at the sizeable budget and high-profile guest list for the event they were attending. Read more

Is it possible that people are overreacting to the crisis at Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear facility? Read more

As we’ve been reporting for the last couple of days, many of the fiscal measures that we once thought had been agreed for the two-day summit are unravelling, thanks in part to Finland’s objections to finalising an increase in the eurozone’s €440bn bail-out fund and Germany’s sudden objection to the structure of the €500bn fund that will replace it in 2013. Read more

Beleaguered Japanese officials are already grappling with a humanitarian crisis wrought by a biblical earthquake and tsunami, and the prospect of apocalyptic meltdowns at a pair of stricken nuclear reactors. Add to their list of woes one European commissioner.

That would be Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, whose ill-judged remarks about the crisis on Wednesday have helped to make a bad situation worse. Read more

As European leaders gather in Brussels for a summit meeting nominally dedicated – for the first time – to energy policy, one uninvited guest is looking on with some dismay: Russia.

High on the agenda is energy security. Which is a polite way of saying that European leaders are discussing how the bloc can break its dependency on Russian gas. In some parts of the EU – notably among the new member states of central and eastern Europe – that policy goal has become an obsession.

“We are totally dependent,” said one Lithuanian diplomat. “Whatever Gazprom says, we pay.” Read more

Friday’s summit of European heads of government has long been signposted as one of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy’s new interim conclaves to deal with a policy issue of crucial importance to Europe, in this case energy security.

But as many diplomats predicted, energy is increasingly getting drowned out by other, more pressing demands.

First, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, called on the summit to be used to hash out an overhaul of the eurozone’s €440bn sovereign debt bail-out fund so it’s able to more flexibly deal with bond market assaults on struggling “peripheral” economies.

Although that won’t happen, Van Rompuy has agreed to turn over the summit’s traditional working lunch to the eurozone crisis, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has decided to use the opportunity to float a new plan for greater coordination in economic and fiscal policies among eurozone countries.

Now, it seems, the afternoon is being taken over by yet another crisis: Egypt. Read more

It was buried amid the excitement of the European Union’s summit in Brussels, but I’d like to draw your attention to a revealing report published on Thursday on the subject of European access to strategic raw materials.  Prepared under the supervision of the European Commission, the report names 14 critical materials that Europe risks not having enough of in the future – with potentially far-reaching implications for Europe’s economic development, not to mention its defence and security. Read more

A wall of resistance from European Union governments and industry stands in the way of the efforts of Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate action commissioner, to secure a pledge from the 27-nation bloc to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by even more than it is already committed to doing.

Hedegaard contends that the EU can afford to set itself higher targets, because Europe’s recent recession – the worst in its history – reduced economic activity and so slashed the cost of meeting the goals set in 2008.  The EU’s basic target is a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels.  Hedegaard would like to raise the target to 30 per cent, thereby maintaining Europe’s self-image as the frontrunner in world efforts to tackle climate change. Read more

If you’ve been breathing a bit easier of late, there may be a reason: carbon dioxide emissions covered by the European Union’s cap-and-trade system fell a remarkable 11 per cent last year, according to preliminary data released by the European Commission. That is the biggest one-year fall since the emissions trading system began five years ago.

Unfortunately, the drop was not owing to the sort of forward-looking, green technology investments so frequently touted by Commission president José Manuel Barroso. Instead it was an unintended gift from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, which has slowed industrial activity. In weight loss terms, this is a bit like shedding 5 kilos through the accident of a stomach flu as opposed to the sustained virtue of diet and exercise. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

It’s striking that the Czech constitutional court announced its approval of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday morning just as the prospect of another Russian gas import crisis began to loom on the EU’s horizon.  For even though the news from Prague is welcome, a moment’s reflection is all you need to remind yourself that the Lisbon treaty will, in and of itself, do very little to help the EU address its most serious foreign and economic policy problems.

The sheer sense of relief at adopting a new EU treaty – it’s taken eight years, required two different texts, gone through three failed referendums and caused endless trouble in countries such as the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK – risks fostering the delusion that everything will be better once Lisbon is in force.  But this is to fall into the trap of assuming that process can substitute for substance (see Monday’s blog on how the same fallacy affects the EU’s approach to relations with other big powers). Read more