Skip to main content
Read page text


LMDLeMonde diplomatique MAY 2013 13

Electricity goes local Renewables are supplying power in Europe but not always where and when it is most needed: there is a mistaken strategy of privatisation and cross-border generation and distribution


Ecologists have dreamed for decades of generating enough electricity from wind and sun to meet our energy needs, but solar and wind power didn’t really take off until the international climate negotiations at the end of the 1990s, followed by a sharp rise in fossil fuel prices in the past decade.

Today, individual energy self-sufficiency is no longer considered a wild idea just for green activists. In France, some local authorities have it as a formal goal, including the Mené communes (population 6,500) in the Côtes d’Armor department of Brittany, which aim to be “75% energy-independent by 2020 for private, public and professional consumption, and self-sufficient by 2030”. There are networks of “positive energy regions” that connect local authorities implementing the “negawatt” approach, combining simplicity, efficiency and the development of renewables. In Europe, the three-year 100% RES (Renewable Energy Source) Communities project, launched in April 2012, has allowed experiments in local policies. Yet the EU and its member states are following an opposite path that could cancel out all the benefits of solar and wind power, which are not the only sources of renewable energy.

Wind and solar power generators are quite different from nuclear and oil, gas or coalfuelled power plants: the energy sources they use are random and intermittent, so electricity production cannot be planned with precision. The load factor (the average real output divided by the theoretical peak output for a whole year) for all French wind farms is only about 25%. Photovoltaic (PV) power generation produces

Aurélien Bernier is the author of Comment la Mondialisation a Tué l’Ecologie (How globalisation killed ecology), Mille et Une Nuits, Paris, 2012

about 15% of its maximum capacity, varying from year to year, according to the weather. Fossil fuel power plants reach nearly 75%.

Wind and solar generators use local sources that also vary considerably between regions – they work best, and are therefore found, where there is reliable wind and sun, causing problems for distribution networks that have to supply consumers’ needs in real time. How can we store energy generated by wind turbines at night when demand is low, or meet seasonal consumption peaks?

European governments subsidise renewables by requiring utility companies to buy that energy from producers at attractive prices (above the average cost of electricity from fossil fuel or nuclear power) over 15-20 years. It is up to the producers and distributers to adapt to this intermittent source, which means they have to have backup capacity – usually a coal, fuel oil or gas power installation, emitting carbon dioxide.

Since the areas best suited to renewable energies are not necessarily those with the highest demand, the electricity may have to be transported over long distances. In Germany, the most powerful wind farms are offshore, in the North Sea, whereas the greatest consumption is in the southern states, such as wealthy Bavaria. That means building new power lines from north to south.

Excess renewable energy produced in periods of low demand can even lead to negative pricing. Several times a year the distributors have to pay to get rid of renewable energy. At present only hydroelectric plants have any significant storage capacity, so they generally absorb this excess production – and then sell it dear at peak times.

The success of Energiekonzept, the ambitious renewable energy plan adopted by the German government in July 2011, depends on a new transport and distribution infrastructure; but the cost of building 4,500km of high voltage lines to reconfigure the grid is $15bn and investors are few and far between. People in places like the state of Thuringia, which the lines will cross, oppose them, leading to bottlenecks in permits. One of the federal government’s priorities is to fast-track procedures. Germans long believed that renewables went hand-in-hand with greater independence, but are now disenchanted. There will be more disappointments since this is just a foretaste of the European free-trade, freeenterprise, energy strategy.

Bouygues Construction has developed the Autonomous Building Concept (ABC) to produce ‘buildings designed to be independent of collective networks’ that will ‘produce their own energy, use less water and recycle most of their waste’

From 1997 the application of the EU directive 96/92/EC on “common rules for the internal market in electricity” has led to the deregulation, if not privatisation, of what was in most countries a public service. In 2004 the implementation of EU directive 2003/55/EC opened up national gas markets. The EU is on the second phase in the creation of a single energy market to allow the “free movement of gas and electricity” and encourage national regulators to inter-connect the markets.

Renewables are given as the reason for this strategy, along with “solidarity” between states.

On 18 December 2012 the European parliament adopted the Trans-European Energy Networks (TEN-E) regulation to “accelerate the approval of priority projects of common interest” such as trans-European power grid connections, with some EU public funding. “It is crucial to building a single energy market in Europe … which will foster environmental sustainability, benefit European consumers, and create jobs and growth for companies and citizens,” said the Portuguese rapporteur António Correia de Campos. In this new free trade zone, Spanish PV power producers will be able to export excess production to France, while German wind farms will provide Belgium and Poland with electricity according to weather conditions – and market prices.

Large network interconnections mixing diverse energy sources require more highly centralised management. In 2000, regulators from the 27 EU member states, together with Norway and Iceland, set up the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) to “facilitate the creation of a single, competitive, efficient and sustainable EU internal energy market.” This was complemented in 2009 by the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), to provide technical advice and monitor electricity and gas markets and cross-border infrastructures.

The “Europeanisation” of energy management is based on technical innovation. In electricity, the shift is to smart grids, which can pilot traditional power plants as well as wind or solar ones, use electric car batteries to store electricity, and even control domestic appliances. To improve load distribution, households can agree to micro-power cuts in their hot water heaters or radiators during peak consumption periods. Some providers suggest a dynamic pricing system. The French electricity company EDF has a pricing system of full (day) rates and slack (night) rates, which could give way to real-time pricing that would track variations in production costs. To get the best value, consumers would have to monitor the price of the kilowatt-hour on the market.

Perhaps the most visionary company is Bouygues Construction, a subsidiary of the French multinational Bouygues. Anticipating the end of public services in energy, water and waste management, it has developed the Autonomous Building Concept (ABC) to produce “buildings designed to be independent of collective networks” that will “produce their own energy, use less water and recycle most of their waste”. Gaëtan Desruelles, executive vice-president for innovation and sustainable construction, believes that “at a time when public projects are increasingly difficult to finance” local authorities will approve this “principle of autonomy that will result in considerable savings.” Thus one of the most powerful and polluting enterprises in the world is fulfilling ecological dreams, at the cost of abandoning the idea of public service.

It would be quite possible to proceed differently. Intelligent government support would focus on energy savings and ensure a better distribution of solar and wind power, with other sources – methane, wood, geothermal and tidal power. The use of local storage solutions such as hydraulic accumulators, thermal storage or compressed air energy storage, would make it possible to design systems to respond to the specific needs and characteristics of regions. This would be less expensive than the European grid interconnection project, which requires $262bn of investment by 2020. But that would mean a real public service in energy – which the EU is intent on destroying and member states have ceased to protect.


My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content