Even on energy efficiency, the EU speaks with multiple voices

Image courtesy Eric Fischer on Flickr

As with many things, so with energy efficiency, the European Union tries to speak with one voice. But the reality is often very different than the goal.

The energy efficiency policies and status of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom, six of the EU’s biggest economies, show marked differences in status and achievements, amid broadly shared policy instruments and targets.

All are determined to improve energy efficiency to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the latest edition of ABB’s “Trends in global energy efficiency” shows. But while all have signed up to assorted EU policies, including the Emissions Trading Scheme, their targets are sufficiently diverse to make direct comparison very difficult.

France’s National Energy Efficiency Action Plan envisages savings of 9 percent between 2008 and 2016, while another law aims to cut final energy intensity (the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product) by 2 percent annually to 2015 and by 2.5 percent from then to 2030. Germany wants primary energy consumption to fall by 20 percent by 2020 and by a whopping 50 percent by 2050 – in both cases compared with 2008 levels. The UK has no less than two National Energy Efficiency Action Plans forecasting a 9 percent cut in consumption, along with a separate commitment to cut carbon emission by 80 percent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels.

All six EU countries have enjoyed some success in lowering energy consumption – albeit from significantly different bases and initial levels of economic development. Such disparities are reflected in markedly divergent achievements. Germany, the EU’s biggest economy and its largest energy consumer, lowered primary energy intensity by 2.1 percent a year between 1990 and 2011. By contrast, France saw consumption rising until 2005 and then falling by just 1.1 percent a year on average thereafter.

The swings have been most marked in southern Europe. Portugal and Spain joined the EU much later than Germany and France and experienced rapid economic development immediately thereafter, leading to sharply rising energy consumption. Demand in Spain climbed steadily to 2007; Portugal surged to 2000 and then continued rising, though at a slower pace, to 2005. But both countries suffered sharp falls thereafter. By 2011, Spain’s total was 11 percent below 2005 levels; Portugal’s 12 percent lower.

The problem is identifying how much the drops stemmed from improved efficiency and how much from the economic downturn of recent years that has gripped the world economy, but hit southern Europe particularly hard. In Italy, a more mature economy than Spain or Portugal, the pre-recession rise in consumption was less marked, but the post 2005 decline (by an annual average 1.6 percent) has been almost as severe.

Distinguishing between the differing impacts of the recession, which has been less severe in Germany and the UK, and actual policy successes is the biggest problem in making pan-European comparisons.

Arguably, data for energy efficiency in electricity generation – one of the biggest energy users – is a better yardstick. In all six European countries, energy efficiency in power generation improved thanks to modernizing historically less-efficient coal powered plants and moving, albeit to varying degrees, to greater use of gas, along with modern combined cycle and co-generative technologies.

Even here, though, the data vary widely – not least because of the differing penetration of renewables. The data for Germany and the UK is clearly influenced by the arrival of wind power, under important incentive schemes introduced by both governments. That helped boost the energy efficiency of Germany’s power sector from 33 percent to 39 percent between 1990 and 2011, and that of the UK from 36 percent to 43 percent over the same period.

Spending to modernize generating capacity was also evident among the other Europeans. Italy reached 47 percent efficiency by 2011, thanks to the increasing use of wind and solar, as well as more gas-powered combined cycle equipment. Big gains were also seen in Spain and Portugal. In industrial applications too, all six countries made gains in energy efficiency thanks to both national schemes and the ETS.

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Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Ilona Braverman. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees. 

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Ilona Braverman

I am the Newsroom Manager with the corporate communications team. Prior to moving to Zurich, I spent over a decade writing, producing, marketing and production coordinating for Fox News in New York City. When I am not working, or enjoying all of the beautiful cities around me, I am busy dancing, cooking or probably making everyone around me howl with laughter.
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