Europe and Central Asia
11 Feb 2015

Energy Infrastructure for a Sustainable European Energy Union

© Motorito, Flickr
By Ivan Scrase

For Europe to remain a global leader in tackling climate change, the Energy Union and all EU energy policy must embrace the vision of a renewable electricity-based energy system.

We should be proud that Europe ‘gets it’ when it comes to climate change. We should also be proud that the EU and its Member States have been world leaders in calling for tough global action to avert climate change linked disasters. They have taken impressive steps to increase the share of clean renewable energies that are available. Today, with the cost of energy sources like wind and solar plummeting, and some major utilities starting to see a future in renewables, we can be optimistic that a global transition into a new era of sustainable energy is in our hands. However, to make this a reality needs more than an increase in renewable energy supplies, it needs a entirely new energy infrastructure.

To make a new energy infrastructure possible means that every sector must change. Domestic heating and transport will have to go electric to displace oil, gas and unsustainable biofuels. Although saving energy and using small scale renewables such as rooftop solar panels will be essential, we will also need low-cost sources such as wind farms. All this will require development of national and international electricity transmission grids so that new generation sources can be connected and reliable electricity supplies made available at all times. This will allow electricity to be imported and exported in response to demand and weather.

Renewables and grid development are central to the climate change solution, but both can negatively impact wildlife if not planned and developed sensitively. Each also faces problems with public acceptance. Protests have focused on the potential negative impacts on wildlife, but protests more often come from local concerns about impacts on rural landscapes and hence risk to property values. One response to both might be to call for all new power lines to be placed underground. However, this would make costs for an energy transition prohibitive, and for high voltage lines it would be hugely challenging in technical terms and far from environmentally benign.

It is inescapable that we will need new overhead power lines, but costs and impacts must be minimised to garner public support. BirdLife has been working with other NGOs and transmission system operators in the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) to help make this happen. By developing and implementing best practices in environmental protection and public engagement, and by calling on decision makers to support investment in grids designed for renewables, through this effort we are helping make the transition possible.

Whichever way the EU leans, renewable energy or other, massive infrastructure investments will be necessary in the coming decades to replace ageing assets and develop the internal market. Where investments are insensitive to local impacts, and where they simply serve to prolong dependence on fossil energy, public resistance is almost inevitable. While the doubters say that a renewables-based electricity system is insecure, the leading grid operators, whose job it is to maintain reliable electricity supplies, clearly do not agree. More than that, RGI sees that setting out to build a better and more sustainable energy system is a crucial starting point to gain public support for energy infrastructure investments.

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An Energy Union focused around prolonging the lives of nuclear and coal power plants and securing supplies of foreign gas does not offer a positive vision for the future. In fact, it would feed people’s sense of powerlessness in the face of climate change, and fuel resistance to the cost and local impacts of energy investments. For Europe to remain a global leader in tackling climate change, the Energy Union and all EU energy policy must embrace the vision of an renewable electricity-based energy system.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.