The goal is a reduced dependence on imported natural gas and oil. And on Thursday, the European Commission in Brussels announced measures intended as a step toward that goal.
Key to the plan is a dramatic increase in the reliance on wind and solar power. The Commission on Thursday called for massive investments in wind parks and the construction of what it called a "Mediterranean Energy Ring" in southern Europe in order to connect more European households to solar and wind energy.
"We must break the vicious circle of increasing energy consumption and increasing imports," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. "We must shield EU citizens from the risk external suppliers cannot honor their commitments."
Today, more than 50 percent of the energy used in Europe is imported from other regions, Barroso said. The imports come at a per capita cost for EU citizens of €700 annually, totalling close to €350 billion. Last year alone, energy prices in Europe rose by 15 percent. For that reason, Barroso said, Europeans need to become more energy efficient and also increase investments in domestic energy sources.
Wind Farms and Solar Parks
The EU would like to create a €1.2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) Europe-wide energy "supergrid" that would replace national grids and integrate multiple small renewable energy suppliers as well as larger power suppliers that, together, would help reduce climate-damaging emissions and reliance on foreign energy sources. There are also plans for a giant North Sea wind farm similar to those being developed in Germany and Denmark that would help power Northern Europe. In addition, a Mediterranean Energy Ring would tap vast solar power resources from North Africa to bring power to Southern Europe and beyond.
More controversially, the European Commission also wants to further promote nuclear energy. Currently, the 148 nuclear reactors located in Europe provide around one-third of all electricity used by Europeans. The Commission noted that the energy source produces very little climate-damaging emissions. In Germany, the government has committed itself to a phasing out all of its nuclear power plants by 2021, but the European Commission said there is a need to extend the lifetime of existing plants (over the next 10-20 years, the majority of nuclear power plants in the EU will reach the end of their planned lifespans) and to consider construction of new ones.
"Decisions about lifetime extension, new investments or replacement become more acute, notably in light of the EU CO2 reduction objective," the Commission said.
The Commission also seeks to improve household energy efficiency. Those undertaking major home renovation will be required to include measures aimed at reducing household energy consumption. EU-wide, the Commission argues, those measures alone could reduce energy consumption by 5 to 6 percent. The Commission is also proposing an energy labelling system for car tires that would inform consumers about the tire's effects on gasoline consumption. According to the Commission, tire resistance can increase a car's fuel consumption by up to 10 percent.
Despite all of these efforts, the Commission said it expects gas and oil imports from abroad to continue to increase, but EU leaders said they still wanted to reduce dependence on Russia, Europe's most important energy supplier. The Commission wants to push ahead with plans to build a gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea that would bring supplies from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Europe. As a response to Russia repeatedly interrupting deliveries to transit countries like Ukraine and Belarus during price disputes in recent years, which at times disrupted energy supplies in Europe, the Commission has called for the creation of a crisis response mechanism.
"A Christmas Tree of Action"
The core aim of the security policy, however, is to boost energy efficiency and existing plans to cut carbon emissions by one-fifth by 2020. Still, environmental groups say it doesn't go far enough.
In Brussels, WWF criticized the plan as a "Christmas tree of action," specifically ridiculing its lack of a mandatory target for energy efficiency. "The proposed measures fail in ambition as they do not include a mandatory energy savings of 20 percent for the EU -- a key move to reduce consumers' energy bill, boost innovation, facilitate the achievement of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and support a strong EU performance at international climate negotiations," WWF energy policy officer Mariangiola Fabbri said.
The group also accused the EU of not doing enough to force improvement in energy efficiency in Europe's buildings, which it said account for 40 percent of all final energy use.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace called the proposal "lackluster." Like WWF, the organization welcomed the idea of a European electricity grid, but it criticized Brussels for not implementing a binding target of 20 percent energy efficiency that had been endorsed by EU leaders in March 2007.
"The Commission has yet again missed the chance to take a bold step forward on energy efficiency -- the backbone of any secure and sustainable energy supply system," Greenpeace said in a statement.
For its part, the Commission said it was not shifting away from the 20 percent energy savings goal. Under measures previously adopted, the EU would reduce energy consumption by 2020 by 13 to 15 percent. With Thursday's efficiency measures, the Commission argued, they could eventually exceed the 20 percent target.
dsl -- with wire reports