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On the road to making Europe climate neutral – interview with European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson

European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson will be one of the speakers at the Budapest Energy Summit to be held online on 1 December.

Despite the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last March, the European Commission’s efforts to reach its ambitious climate targets outlined in the European Green Deal continued at full speed.

Indeed, one of the aspects highlighted by the pandemic is that once this crisis is over climate change will still be here and the actions we take now can have effects for the years to come. Very recently the European Commission presented the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy, as offshore renewable energy is among the technologies with the greatest potential to scale up, given the great number and variety of sea basins in the European Union and the steadily falling costs of new installations. 

In October, the Commission also presented two more strategies: one to reduce methane emissions and the second one to make buildings more energy-efficient. Prior to that, the EU also announced a long-awaited hydrogen strategy on how to transform this potential into reality, through investments, regulation, market creation and research and innovation.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson about what outcomes are expected from all the strategies presented over the past months and the role played by alternative fuels and renewables to increase countries’ energy diversification while, at the same time, decrease their energy dependence.

Starting with the EU strategy to reduce methane emissions and the Renovation Wave Strategy, Mrs Simson underlines how both initiatives are cornerstones on the road to making Europe climate-neutral by 2050.

“The Methane Strategy outlines initiatives to mitigate methane emissions in the energy, agriculture and waste sectors, which represent roughly 95 per cent of methane emissions related to human activity,” she says. “After CO2, methane is the second biggest greenhouse gas contributor to climate change and therefore a priority for meeting the EU’s climate and clean air targets.”

Commissioner Simson underlines that methane is particularly relevant for 2030 and 2050 targets as it is a short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) with a lifetime of roughly one decade, far less than CO2.

“This means that if we take action now, it will make a meaningful impact on temperature pathways to 2050,” she continues. “In the energy sector, the strategy takes steps to improve measurement and reporting of methane emissions, leak detection and repair, as well as collaborating with international partners to coordinate global action.”

Methane emissions in the EU are projected to decrease by 29 per cent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels and the European Commission hopes that initiatives under the methane strategy will help to increase that reduction to at least 35-37 per cent, in line with the reductions necessary to meet our climate goals.

“Nevertheless, the majority of emissions associated with fuels consumed in the EU are emitted outside of our borders, for example through ‘super-emitter’ sources which we can observe from our satellites,” Mrs Simson points out. “Our international action will also aim to support the reduction of emissions beyond our borders.”

On the other hand, she notes that the Renovation Wave Strategy responds to the energy inefficiency and our buildings’ lack of preparation for the ongoing and future changes in our climate. Buildings account for 40 per cent of the total energy consumption in the EU and 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from energy. With this strategy, the European Commission aims to at least double the renovation rate of residential and non-residential buildings by 2030.

“This means renovating about 35 million buildings,” Mrs Simson recalls. “Renovation is an opportunity to improve the situation of the 34 million Europeans who are unable to afford keeping their home adequately warm or cool. Energy-efficient homes would reduce energy bills, improve health and living conditions and help our climate.”

In July, the Commission also adopted the long-awaited strategies for energy system integration and hydrogen, in order to transform Europe’s energy system and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In particular, hydrogen can be used as a feedstock, fuel or an energy carrier and storage and has many possible applications across industry, transport, power and buildings sectors. Most importantly, it does not emit CO2 and almost no air pollution when used.

“The Hydrogen Strategy published by the European Commission sets out three phases of development of the clean hydrogen economy across different industry sectors,” explains Commissioner Simson. “In the first phase, from 2020 to 2024, we plan to decarbonise hydrogen production. The installation of at least 6 GW [gigawatts] of renewable hydrogen electrolysers in the EU by 2024 and the production of up to one million tonnes of renewable hydrogen are the main elements in reaching this objective.”

Also, Mrs Simson explains that in the second phase, from 2024 to 2030, hydrogen should become an intrinsic part of our energy system. The aim is to install 40GW of electrolysers by 2030 and to increase renewable hydrogen production up to ten million tonnes. Finally, between 2030 and 2050, renewable hydrogen technologies are expected to be mature enough to become part of the large-scale decarbonisation of several sectors of our economy.

“Most national energy and climate plans acknowledge the role of hydrogen in the energy transition,” she highlights. “Half of the plans mention concrete hydrogen-related objectives for the domestic generation of renewable or low-carbon hydrogen, for end-use in industry and hard-to-electrify transport sectors. An illustration of this are Greece and Portugal’s plans to build hydrogen infrastructure on former lignite mining sites.”

However, hydrogen is not yet entirely green and it is still expensive and other solutions are needed which are already available, more affordable and can also be used for hard-to-abate industries (like the heavy transport or maritime transport).

“As presented in the hydrogen strategy, we are going to focus on scaling up renewable hydrogen, bringing down costs and creating a well-functioning hydrogen market,” Mrs Simson says. “For some uses and sectors, there aren’t many alternatives available. That said, we need to consider all options that can help us reach net-zero. Biofuels – a form of renewable energy derived from sources like wood, forest residues, organic wastes, and agricultural crops – can be an affordable option as an alternative to hydrogen and traditional fossil fuels.”

When it comes to energy diversification, the energy market in the EU is now more competitive thanks to the multiple sources and routes implemented in the past decade. Yet, many countries are still import-dependent and increasing the share of renewables could help them rely on energy produced locally.

“To reach ambitious climate targets our energy supply needs to be based increasingly on renewables, around 40 per cent by 2030,” agrees Mrs Simson. “Fortunately, the decrease in production costs for renewables has been spectacular in recent years. Already today, solar power and on-shore wind are the cheapest form of electricity in several parts of Europe, with off-shore wind following.”

To give a boost to the latter, the Commission has just adopted the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy.

“We need to create a market and investment framework for electricity, gas, heat and fuel that facilitates the uptake of renewable sources,” the Commissioner continues. “In electricity, we can build on the recently adopted new market design which will make our market more flexible but also more coordinated. Larger and better-integrated markets provide greater opportunities and more price stability for investors.”

At the same time, she underlines that to accompany the growth of renewables, we will need more interconnections, energy storage and smarter grids.

“We should also look at our infrastructure in a more holistic manner across sectors,” Mrs Simson adds. “To this end, we are finalising our proposal to revise the regulation on Trans-European Networks.”

As the next step, the Commission underlines that we should repeat the success in the decarbonisation of the electricity markets also in the gas markets. Biogas, new types of low-carbon gases and renewable hydrogen provide promising avenues. Renewable hydrogen in particular ticks all the right boxes.

“After 2030, hydrogen technologies should reach maturity and be widespread across EU,” she concludes. “A necessary pre-condition for this is the availability of energy infrastructure for connecting supply and demand. In the future, hydrogen could be transported via pipelines, either new or retrofitted, but potentially also by trucks or ships docking at adapted LNG terminals.”

At the end of the day, we are all fighting climate change and transforming our energy system in line with the Paris Agreement and the Green Deal and Mrs Simson reminds that the Commission is, of course, supporting the Member States in their efforts to achieve a cleaner and more sustainable energy mix.

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