Officials drafting the bloc's new energy plan ponder how to encourage the use of green technology by electric companies
When EU leaders in March agreed to cut CO2 and boost renewables by 2020, the press asked German chancellor Angela Merkel how the targets would be met. She shrugged, smiled and said "With all the best will in the world, I can't tell you." By the end of November this year, the European Commission hopes to have some answers.
"They've set the targets, now we need the technology to achieve the targets," an EU official tasked with drafting Brussels' autumn "energy technology plan" told EUobserver in May.
Green electricity-making technology - such as biofuel, wind and solar energy or CO2 sequestration - already exists. But the challenge will be getting the political will to roll it out from niches onto mass market scale.
The technology strategy paper will consist of a 15-page or so public "communication" backed up by hundreds of pages of detailed analysis for expert use. In March 2008 EU leaders will choose which bits of the plan to take forward, using a mix of national government decisions and EU directives. By 2010 some of the changes will start becoming reality.
Brussels' strategy paper is still at an early stage, with a first round of industry consultation completed last month. But some conclusions are already emerging: EU states will need to form groups targeting specific renewable sectors with public money; CO2 sequestration at coal plants will probably be enforced by law and futuristic technologies will not be prioritised for now.
One of the favoured solutions is to use "feed-in tariffs" to give energy companies the confidence to make long-term investments in biofuel, wind, solar, hydro and geothermal power. The tariff system - already used with some success in Germany, France and Portugal - is based on governments giving guarantees on prices and volumes purchased from renewable energy producers.
Existing tariff schemes are localised and rarely run for more than one year at a time. But the commission would like to see EU states that have a natural common interest - such as Mediterranean countries on solar and the Atlantic rim on wind - band together and offer long-term guarantees. A new EU steering group composed of national and commission officials could help pull things together.
"Companies see this as a big opportunity to do business, but they need a stable framework. We're trying to provide that," the EU official said, using solar - 0.04 percent of the current world energy mix - to illustrate the gap between potential and market reality. "There's enough solar energy reaching the earth to meet all our needs several times over, but capturing it is very expensive."
New markets and old coal
If the market-based approach goes well the 2020 goals can be hit. But the commission will have to tread lightly, without telling EU countries which energy types to promote.
"We cannot present this as Brussels dictating what technology to use. Every state has sovereignty on energy mix," the EU expert said. In other areas, EU officials are more bullish.
Coal currently generates 33 percent of EU electricity. It is cheap, costing one third the price of solar to make the same amount of electricity. It is abundant, with the EU sitting on enough coal to feed existing power stations for the next 130 years. And it is dirty, spewing out twice as much CO2/kilowatthour as plants fired by natural gas.
A solution is carbon sequestration: Swedish firm Vattenfall is already building a small coal-powered plant in eastern Germany that will separate CO2 from the chimney and pump it 1,000 metres underground into a layer of porous rock. But it is pricey. Vattenfall's own studies show sequestration is among the most expensive CO2-reduction tools around.
"There's absolutely no incentive for power companies to switch to clean coal - it just costs them money. The only way is to legislate," the EU energy expert said on feedback from the big hydrocarbon power producers consulted by Brussels so far. "In many cases they will have to be forced to do it via legislation on clean coal."
Meanwhile, commission strategists are pushing research into "emerging" technologies down the list of priorities for 2020. Some futuristic ideas are scientifically within reach: producing biofuel from household waste instead of food crops; thin-film solar panels; hydrogen combustion engines and lightweight turbines using huge, 100 metre-long windmill blades.
The Sun comes to earth
Others remain in the realm of science-fiction: nobody knows if the ITER fusion project being built in Cadarache, France - which is to heat atomically-modified gas to 10 times the temperature in the core of the Sun - will produce power by 2016, as planned. In the Arctic Circle, a US scientist is experimenting with using the earth's magnetic field to catapult CO2 into outer space.
Part of the problem is the ticking clock. "The consensus is [the 2020 targets] will be achieved by existing technology, there is just no time to develop and deploy emerging technologies," the EU official said. "When you look ahead to 2050, we're talking about 60 to 80 percent reductions of CO2. Then you have to develop new technologies."
Politics is also playing its part, however. The commission autumn paper will encourage EU states to pool research into new technologies, topping up Brussels' 7 billion a year overall research budget. But a green energy breakthrough is a golden goose EU members may want to serve "national economic interests," the EU expert warned.
The March 2007 summit saw European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso use the phrase "new industrial revolution" several times on the 2020 plan. But the average European will hardly notice the subtle changes in the energy landscape in the years to come, barring some extra biofuel pumps at petrol stations, driving past more windmills and solar farms.
"You won't feel any difference - you can't see electricity [whether it is clean or not]," Mr Barroso's official said, predicting that the real "industrial revolution" is "many, many decades away."