Europe looking for energy of the future

An energy crunch that chokes fuel supplies, dims the lights at homes and workplaces, and ravages Western economies may no longer be the stuff of 1970s history books. It could be a vision of the near future.

The 1970s oil crisis gave Western countries a glimpse of what life is like when the energy supply isn't enough to go around. Worried that an even bigger crisis lies in wait, the European Commission is presenting an energy "roadmap" on Jan. 10 that aims to steer the bloc's 490 million people in a different direction.

The policies, of unprecedented scope, will carry a plain warning: High and volatile oil prices, surging demand, unreliable supplies and global warming compel Europe to reconfigure its energy supply before it's too late, the AP says.

It is Europe's response to one of the defining global problems of the 21st century.

"It's the biggest issue. It affects all of us. Just try living without energy for a few days," said Elena Nekhaev, director of programs at the London-based World Energy Council, a non-governmental organization.

The European Union, the second-largest consumer of energy in the world after the United States, is also the largest energy importer, looking abroad for just over half the energy it needs.

Within 20 years, at current rates of consumption, the EU could depend on foreign suppliers for 70 percent of its energy, the Commission says.

The EU's blueprint, sketched out over the past year, plots a different path: lower energy consumption, the development of renewable sources and research into other alternatives, and ways of cutting carbon emissions from fuels already in use, particularly coal.

But changing course won't be easy, experts say.

"Making a change is like trying to turn a supertanker around," says John Loughhead, executive director of the U.K. Energy Research Center in London.

"Change requires a really enormous effort. The big debate is, who is going to pay for it and equally, are people willing to make the modifications that will be needed to do it," he said.

Are Europeans ready to change the habits of a lifetime? Shoulder the added costs of research? Open the door wider to nuclear power? Surrender their countryside to fields of wind turbines and solar panels?

Eero Heinaluoma, the finance minister of Finland who recently headed a group of experts reporting on the European energy sector, detects a shift in public attitudes.

He says public alarm over possible climate change coupled with last year's spike in oil prices, which provided a 1970s-style jolt, brought a tipping point that will inspire "a third industrial revolution."

"You can really feel the change," he said. "People are now really worried."

Other observers, though, fear governments may balk at signing up to drastic changes that could cause a backlash at the ballot box.

The European Renewable Energy Council, a Brussels-based industry group, says all but two of the European Union's 27 member states - Germany and Denmark - are shying away from binding targets for renewable energy production that are a central plank of the new policy.

EU nations generate only 6 percent of their energy from renewable sources and almost all of that is hydropower from dams, according to the European Commission, which wants an agreed target of 15 percent by 2015.

Any political hesitation will hurt development of the alternative energy sector, EREC's policy director Oliver Schaefer says.

"Investors need a stable political framework," he said.

Private investment is vital if the new energy plan is to gain traction. State subsidies alone are unlikely to meet the challenge of developing alternative energy sources, analysts say, as voters balk at possible tax hikes.

The equipment, installation and maintenance of "intermittent" renewable sources, such as solar or wind energy, are still significantly more expensive than traditional fuels. The bill for wind turbines, which on average turn between 20-30 percent of the time, comes in at about euro1,000 (US$1,300) per kilowatt of installed capacity. Gas turbines cost less than half that, according to the World Energy Council.

The intermittent sources are also unreliable. A cloudy, windless day consigns solar panels and wind turbines to idleness - which is why at the moment they account for less than 1 percent of Europe's energy production.

Expanding their use requires lower costs and a major engineering breakthrough in energy storage technology.

Still, wind and solar power are creating a stock market buzz as investors stake cash on an anticipated major expansion.

The euro340 million (US$450 million) listing in November of French company EDF Energies Nouvelles, which has operations in nine European countries and the United States, on the Euronext stock exchange was heavily oversubscribed. Its shares leapt more than 16 percent on their first day of trading and have remained steady.

General Electric Co. aims to double its annual sales of environmentally friendly products to US$20 billion (euro15 billion) by 2010, from US$10 billion (euro7.5 billion) in 2004.

Michael Liebreich, CEO of London-based research firm New Energy Finance, says the investment market for clean energy companies gathered momentum this year after U.S. President George W. Bush's encouragement of new energy sources in his State of the Union speech.

Britain's publication of the Stern report on global warming, and the ratification by 165 countries of the Kyoto Protocol which calls for steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, provided another push.

New Energy Finance predicts that US$70.9 billion (about euro54 billion) will be spent worldwide this year on developing renewable energy.

"There's a realization ... that a transformation of the world's energy architecture is going on," Liebreich said. "Financial investors see this as a place to put money."

Germany, whose latest generation of five-megawatt wind turbines are more than 100 meters across, and Denmark already harvest around 20 percent of their electricity from the wind. Other EU nations are expected to follow their lead.

Germany is also in front in solar power. It has almost 1 million square meters (10 million square feet) of panels - about half the EU total. Austria, Greece, Spain and France also plan major solar investments.

Portugal, Western Europe's poorest nation and almost entirely dependent on imported energy, has assembled some of the world's most innovative renewable energy projects.

The Portuguese are developing the world's first commercial wave power station off the country's Atlantic coast. A solar power plant in the sunny south will be the world's largest, with more than 52,000 solar panels covering 60,000 square meters (645,000 square feet), when it comes on line this month. Enough wind farms to power some 750,000 homes have obtained government approval and the project brought much-needed jobs to the area.

The goal is to enhance the country's self-reliance - a kind of reverse globalization, turning to backyard energy sources.

However, experts say renewable sources cannot provide a comprehensive solution in the short term.

"It's difficult to see any scenario in which fossil fuels are not still the dominant (European energy) source in 2050," says Loughhead of the U.K. Energy Research Center.

Even so, alternative sources are an important part of the new mix, endowing Europe's traditional energy structure with more flexibility.

The European Commission envisions biofuels from plants and waste accounting for 8 percent of energy consumption within 10 years - and replacing 20 percent of oil products for road transport by 2020.

The public remains jittery about nuclear power stations, which provide about 15 percent of Europe's electricity and 80 percent in France.

Scientists are trying to overcome the engineering challenges of nuclear fusion reactors. Operating with lithium and water, they produce less radioactive waste than fission reactors of the kind used at Chernobyl.

Seven partners - the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea - agreed in November to build an experimental euro10 billion (US$13.3 billion) fusion reactor at Cadarache, in southern France.

But figuring out how to make it work on a practical scale will take decades of research.

In the meantime, the Commission wants Europeans to cut back on their energy usage, seeking a 20 percent reduction in consumption by 2020.

It recommends some simple steps, such as avoiding use of the standby button on appliances which, it says, drains away almost 7 percent of Europe's electricity supply.

Yet whatever road the continent follows, Nekhaev of the World Energy Council says, global warming is a worldwide problem, not just a European one - so help should also be provided to less developed countries so they can pursue their own energy alternatives.

"We're all in the same boat and we have to make sure that the boat isn't the Titanic," she said.

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