Just as the world began to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, war came to our door. Geopolitical instability and economic uncertainty came together in 2022. And it did not take long for EU citizens to be reminded of these interdependencies. During March, energy bills increased by 40% on average compared to the previous year, with price surges near to 100% in some countries like the Netherlands.
Concerns around the next heating season are legitimate, as is the search for immediate solutions. However, now our focus is on treating the symptoms, while forgetting the reasons for Europe’s dramatic dependency on foreign sources of supply from regions that are either politically unstable or hostile to the European construction project.
Beyond the need to ramp up our capacity to produce sustainable energy sources, the elephant in the room is the blatant lack of energy efficiency slowing down the energy transition. It is causing 13 European countries to be largely or fully reliant on Russian gas for heating their buildings, and the EU Member States had to already pay €60 billion to Russia for fossil fuels since 24 February (see figure from 7 June).
The REPowerEU plan attempts to deal with immediate concerns and supports the Fit for 55 agenda, notably in terms of investing in renewable energy and delivering energy savings. However, further actions are needed to catalyse systemic changes, notably when it comes to energy efficiency. European citizens should be able to realise energy savings, count on affordable and reliable energy, and drive the transition toward a sustainable, digital and electrified energy system, with energy efficiency at its core.
For too long, energy efficiency has been called the EU’s First Fuel, but like a good year resolution, that was it. Had we implemented the energy efficiency ambition requested by the European Parliament in the Energy Efficiency Directive back in December 2015 (40% target), we would have saved much more energy than what has been achieved so far and we would not be afraid of power cuts. Had a country like Spain implemented its 2014 building renovation plan, it would have saved close to 3.3 million tonnes of oil equivalent annually, the equivalent of all gas imported in 2021.
The list is long of what should have worked better. What matters now is to use the current momentum of the Fit for 55 negotiations to secure systemic changes, placing energy efficiency at its heart. This calls for a structured approach, equipping the ‘energy efficiency first’ principle with concrete tools, making it a default practice in terms of planning, organising and monitoring our transition to carbon neutrality.
First, in terms of planning, it is known that the global transition requires cutting energy demand by 50% to 75%, in addition to massively deploying renewables. The French network operator RTE came to similar conclusions in a major report last autumn.
We tend to forget that the vast increase in capacity for renewable energy in all sectors that is needed, should go together with the prerequisite of not wasting energy. At the European level, further work is needed to frame the required volume of energy demand reduction, alongside renewable supply, to support a cost-effective net zero transition. Such an analysis that illustrates constraints and benefits (e.g. peak demand and its impact on the grid) should urgently be conducted at the European level to underpin our policy and financing choices.
Second, making the ‘energy efficiency first’ principle work in practice should lead to more synergies between energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment in policies supporting decarbonisation goals. For example, energy management systems must be deployed in industry, homes and commercial buildings to integrate large, decentralised energy sources and optimise heating and cooling consumption. The renovation approach for buildings should be holistic, with e.g. solar PV-ready roofs being well insulated, building fabric improvement enabling low temperature renewable based heating, and control devices supporting the respective loads shifting and demand management. We should also pay attention to vulnerable consumers by combining support schemes that enable them to pay energy bills, with prioritised enrolment in renovation programmes.
Third, energy efficiency should be made more visible. If the topic “energy” is of geopolitical strategic relevance, then let us treat it like it is. Let us start by having European Council meetings reviewing monthly progress on energy efficiency, alongside additional capacity for renewable energy. Let us better integrate energy efficiency indicators into broader criteria in the EU Economic Semester review.
The Fit for 55 negotiations are an opportunity to walk the talk on energy efficiency. Let us finally factor in energy security and peace as its most valuable benefits, underpinning our European project and the climate and energy transition.
- EU-ASE: Short to mid-term measures in energy efficiency to reduce gas consumption in Europe
About the authors:
Bertrand Deprez is Vice-President in charge of European Government Affairs at Schneider Electric. He heads the group’s liaison office to the European Union, and he holds responsibilities in several EU industry associations and groups. Bertrand is a board member of the European Alliance to Save Energy and a European Climate Pact Ambassador.
Céline Carré is Head of Public Affairs for Saint-Gobain, a member of the European Alliance to Save Energy. Based in Brussels, Céline is in charge of designing and implementing advocacy activities in the fields of climate, energy and sustainability and supporting the local businesses in developing advocacy.
The European Alliance to Save Energy (EU-ASE) aims to advance the energy efficiency agenda in the European Union. The Alliance allows leading multinational companies to join environmental campaigners and a cross-party group of Members of the European Parliament. EU-ASE business members have operations across the 27 Member States of the European Union, employ over 340.000 people in Europe and have an aggregated annual turnover of €115 billion.
Disclaimer: This article is a contribution from a partner. All rights reserved.
Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on behalf of the Commission is responsible for the use that might be made of the information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) only and should not be considered as representative of the European Commission’s official position.
- Publication date
- 14 June 2022
- European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency