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An EU Strategy for Energy System Integration: Explainer

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What is energy system integration?

Energy system integration refers to the planning and operating of the energy system “as a whole”, across multiple energy carriers, infrastructures, and consumption sectors. It creates stronger links between them with the objective of delivering low-carbon, reliable and resource-efficient energy services, at the least possible cost for society. Energy system integration is the pathway towards an effective, affordable and deep decarbonisation of the European economy.

The current energy system is still built on parallel and vertical energy value chains, which rigidly link specific energy resources with specific end-use sectors. This model of separate silos cannot deliver a climate neutral economy. It is technically and economically inefficient, and leads to substantial losses in the form of waste heat and low energy efficiency.

The Energy System Integration Strategy sets out a vision on how to accelerate the transition towards a more integrated energy system, in support of clean energy and a climate neutral economy while strengthening energy security, protecting health and the environment, and promoting growth and global industrial leadership.

The Strategy sets out 38 actions to implement the necessary reforms. These include the revision of existing energy legislation, financial support or research and deployment of new technologies and digital tools, guidance to Member States on fiscal measures and phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, market governance reform and holistic infrastructure planning, and improved information to consumers.

What are the main elements of the strategy?

The strategy is built on three complementary and mutually reinforcing elements:

  • First, a more circular energy system, where no energy is wasted and where energy efficiency is the first consideration. An example is to facilitate the reuse of waste heat from industrial sites and data centres.
  • Secondly, the use of cleaner electricity produced from renewable sources. As renewables become cheaper, electricity will become cleaner. We need to extend the use of that clean electricity into more areas such as buildings, industry, and transport, which traditionally relied on fossil fuels.
  • Thirdly, the promotion of renewable and low-carbon fuels, including hydrogen, for sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as heavy transport and industry. This will be done by: unlocking the potential of sustainable biomass and biofuels, renewable hydrogen, and synthetic fuels; enabling carbon capture, storage and use; clarifying the definition of different renewable and low-carbon fuels and supporting their development; and promoting innovative projects.

Finally, the strategy will be pro-consumer, providing clear and easily accessible information on the cleanest solutions and climate-friendly choices in the market, enabling and encouraging smarter and more sustainable energy use. It will rely on an increased use of digitalisation to connect consumers, producers and energy system operators with each other. This will also contribute to the fight against energy poverty.

The strategy lays down concrete policy proposals that the Commission will present over the coming months and years to deliver on these objectives.

Does this strategy help to reach the goals of the European Green Deal?

Yes. Energy production and consumption account for 75% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The energy system is therefore crucial to delivering on the European Green Deal’s objective of reaching climate neutrality by 2050. The energy system also underpins our economy and our daily lives. It provides jobs and livelihoods and strengthens European competitiveness and innovation.

Energy sector integration enables to combine decarbonised and renewable energy supply with efficient demand side technologies such as electric motors, heat pumps and fuel cells. Deep greenhouse gas emission reductions can only be reached through a combination of energy efficiency and very high shares of renewable energy. And both energy efficiency and renewables penetration can be facilitated by a more integrated energy system.

A new inter-connected system will be more efficient and “circular”, capturing and re-using waste energy. It will be cleaner, with increased use of heat and electricity produced from renewable sources applied in efficient demand side applications in industry, transport and heating. And for those sectors where electrification is difficult, the strategy proposes steps to promote cleaner fuels, including sustainable biofuels and biogas, and renewable hydrogen.

All this will contribute to combatting climate change and reach the goals of the European Green Deal while keeping the costs of the energy transition under control, thus contributing to a fair and just transition.

Will the strategy help Europe’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis?

Yes. The strategy will be another building block of the economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. The transition to a more integrated energy system is of crucial importance for Europe, now more than ever. The Commission’s Next Generation EU recovery plan presented on 27 May 2020 highlights the need to better integrate the energy system, as part of its efforts to unlock investment in key clean technologies and value chains. By relying on greater use of clean and innovative processes and tools, the path towards system integration will also trigger new investments, jobs and growth, and strengthen EU industrial leadership at a global level, contributing to the economic recovery.

Does the strategy continue to support fossil fuels such as gas and coal?

On the contrary, the strategy is a roadmap to accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels through 3 levels:

  • Energy efficiency and circularity, and the use of local renewable resources;
  • Electrification wherever possible, to replace the uses of gas, coal and oil by the direct use of electricity produced from renewables;
  • Renewables and new fuels based on renewables to replace fossil fuels in processes that cannot be converted to electricity;

As regards to gas, the strategy proposes a pathway to replace natural gas with sustainable renewable gas and new synthetic gases based on renewable sources such as hydrogen and synthetic methane.

Does the strategy contribute to the goal of a just transition?

The objective of the strategy is to reach our climate objectives at the lowest possible cost for consumers and public budgets. The strategy also proposes to reinforce the role of consumers in driving the transition to a decarbonised, decentralised energy system. Providing clear and easily accessible information will enable citizens to make climate-friendly choices, change energy consumption patterns and be informed about the best technology options available to them.

The strategy also takes advantage of the rapidly decreasing costs of renewable energy across the EU, which results in lower prices for the consumers, increased energy security, and a more inclusive energy system. In addition, this strategy aims at strengthening the competitiveness of the European economy by promoting growth and technological innovation across the whole EU.

Does the strategy respect the ‘energy-efficiency-first’ principle?

Yes. The energy-efficiency-first principle is at the core of energy system integration. Energy efficiency reduces the overall investment needs and costs associated with energy production, infrastructure and use. It also reduces the related land and materials use, and the associated pollution and biodiversity losses.

Energy system integration can help the EU achieve greater energy efficiency through a more circular use of available resources and by switching to more efficient energy technologies. For example, electric vehicles are much more energy efficient than combustion engines. Applying this energy-efficiency-first principle consistently across the whole energy system will be done by giving priority to demand-side solutions whenever they are more cost effective than investments in energy supply infrastructure in meeting policy objectives.

Other measures will ensure that customers’ decisions to save, switch or share energy properly reflect the life cycle energy use and footprint of the different energy carriers, including extraction, production and reuse or recycling of raw materials, conversion, transformation, transportation and storage of energy, and the growing share of renewables in electricity supply.

How does the strategy support EU leadership in clean energy technology?

The strategy aims to ensure that the EU fully exploits its head-start and expertise in renewable and smart energy technologies. Specific sectors and value chains that are expected to have a central importance and where the EU is well positioned for global leadership include:

  • district heating
  • smart grids and appliances
  • digital tools to support the integration of electric vehicles
  • hydrogen supply and demand side equipment.

How does the strategy affect the EU’s security of energy supply?

The EU is currently importing 58% of its energy needs, mostly in the form of oil and gas. With the clean energy transition, the EU will decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and fossil fuel imports. The Energy system integration strategy will facilitate this process. The EU will consume less energy overall, increasingly rely on domestic renewable resources and gradually diversify its energy imports towards cleaner energy carriers, such as renewable hydrogen. These energy savings, diversification and domestic production will help to build a more resilient European economy.

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Global emissions are set to surge to an all-time high

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Governments worldwide are deploying an unprecedented amount of fiscal support aimed at stabilising and rebuilding their economies, but only about 2% of this spending has been allocated to clean energy measures, according to new analysis from the International Energy Agency.

The sums of money, both public and private, being mobilised worldwide by recovery plans fall well short of what is needed to reach international climate goals. These shortfalls are particularly pronounced in emerging and developing economies, many of which face particular financing challenges.

Under governments’ current recovery spending plans, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to climb to record levels in 2023 and continue rising in the following years. This would leave the world far from the pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 that the IEA set out in its recent Global Roadmap to Net Zero.

These findings come from the new Sustainable Recovery Tracker that the IEA launched today to help policy makers assess how far recovery plans are moving the needle on climate. The new online tool is a contribution to the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy in Naples, which takes place on 22 and 23 July under the Presidency of Italy.

The Tracker monitors government spending allocated to sustainable recoveries and then estimates how much this spending boosts overall clean energy investment and to what degree this affects the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. The Tracker considers over 800 national sustainable recovery policies in its analysis, which are publicly available on the IEA website.

“Since the Covid-19 crisis erupted, many governments may have talked about the importance of building back better for a cleaner future, but many of them are yet to put their money where their mouth is. Despite increased climate ambitions, the amount of economic recovery funds being spent on clean energy is just a small sliver of the total,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

Governments have mobilised USD 16 trillion in fiscal support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, most of it focused on emergency financial relief for households and firms. Only 2% of the total is earmarked for clean energy transitions.

In the early phases of the pandemic, the IEA released the Sustainable Recovery Plan, which recommended USD 1 trillion of spending globally on clean energy measures that could feature prominently in recovery plans. According to the Plan – developed in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund – this spending would boost global economic growth, create millions of jobs and put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

According to the Tracker, all the key sectors highlighted in the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan are receiving inadequate attention from policy makers. Current government plans would only increase total public and private spending on clean energy to around USD 350 billion a year by 2023 – only 35% of what is envisaged in the Plan.

The Tracker shows the stark geographic disparities that are emerging in clean energy investment. The majority of funds are being mobilised in advanced economies, which are nearing 60% of the investment levels envisaged in the Sustainable Recovery Plan. Emerging and developing economies, many of which have limited fiscal leeway, have so far mobilised only about 20% of the recommended spending levels.

“Not only is clean energy investment still far from what’s needed to put the world on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s not even enough to prevent global emissions from surging to a new record. Many countries – especially those where the needs are greatest – are also missing the benefits that well planned clean energy investment brings, such as stronger economic growth, new jobs and the development of the energy industries of the future,” Dr Birol said

“Governments need to increase spending and policy action rapidly to meet the commitments they made in Paris in 2015 – including the vital provision of financing by advanced economies to the developed world,” Dr Birol added. “But they must then go even further by leading clean energy investment and deployment to much greater heights beyond the recovery period in order to shift the world onto a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, which is narrow but still achievable – if we act now.”

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Portugal’s energy policies set a clear pathway towards 2050 carbon neutrality

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Portugal’s equitable and well-balanced plans for reaching a carbon-neutral economy should support the country’s economic growth and energy security, according to a new energy policy review by the International Energy Agency.

Portugal’s energy and climate policies aim to reach carbon neutrality primarily through broad electrification of energy demand and a rapid expansion of renewable electricity generation, along with increased energy efficiency. These measures are backed by a strong focus on reducing dependency on energy imports and maintaining affordable access to energy. In the longer term, Portugal is aiming for hydrogen to play a major role in achieving carbon neutrality.

“Portugal was among the first countries in the world to set a target for carbon neutrality by 2050, and its Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality shows a strong commitment to electrifying its economy and ensuring a secure and affordable energy transition,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, who is launching the policy review today at an event with João Pedro Matos Fernandes, Portugal’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Action. “The IEA looks forwards to supporting the Portuguese government as it works on a fair and inclusive transition to a carbon-neutral economy.”

Portugal’s climate and energy goals still face notable challenges, the IEA policy review notes, with an economy that remains heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels today. The report welcomes steps the government is taking to address these challenges. An effective auction process for renewable energy projects should result in almost 2 gigawatts of new renewable generation coming online in the next few years, which will triple Portugal’s solar PV capacity.

Portugal is pushing to reduce oil demand and associated emissions through transport decarbonisation, with over EUR 10 billion of investments in electrified rail and public transport, favourable tax treatment for electric vehicles and support for charging infrastructure. Portugal is also taking a major step towards lowering emissions and reducing energy import dependency by phasing out coal-fired electricity generation in 2021.

Portugal sees a key role for hydrogen produced from renewable energy in hard-to-decarbonise sectors and for achieving carbon neutrality. The National Hydrogen Strategy sets a goal for hydrogen produced from renewable energy to cover 1.5-2% of Portugal’s energy demand by 2030, with use in industry, domestic maritime shipping, road transport and for injection into the natural gas network and potential exports.

“I congratulate Portugal for developing a broad policy framework with robust measures to achieve emission reductions,” Dr Birol said. “Portugal has found a good balance of ambitious targets and competitive support measures needed to drive a cost-effective energy transition.”

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EU energy programme with Eastern partner countries extends into second phase

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The European Commission has launched the second phase of its EU4Energy programme, which promotes low-carbon and clean energy transitions in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a joint initiative involving the European Union, its Members States and six Eastern European Partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

“Promoting the Clean Energy Transition in the Eastern Partnership Countries: EU4Energy Phase II” will run for the next four years and will help develop legislative and regulatory frameworks that support the region’s energy transformation and the liberalisation of its energy markets, as well the digitalisation of its energy systems. Beyond reducing emissions, the programme’s goal is to provide the citizens of the Eastern Partnership Countries with more stable and resilient energy supplies, empowering consumers and increasing energy security.

The International Energy Agency is a partner in the EU4Energy programme along with the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) and the Energy Community Secretariat (EnCS). The 8 July kick-off conference for the programme’s second phase includes country representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine who will share their knowhow and experience to further enhance cooperation in the energy sector within the region.

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