Public opposition is a major obstacle for the construction of a European energy infrastructure

A recently published EC report shows overwhelming support for renewable energy sources (RES) in all 27 member states of the EU. RESs are, “the most mentioned priority for energy options in the next 30 years”, while both conventional and unconventional fossil fuels score poorly. Simultaneously, most Member States have experienced significant growth in renewable energy consumption in the recent years. 2010 figures show a share of 12.7% of renewable energy, which means the EU is on its way to meet 2020 targets. The recently adopted Green Paper on “A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies” is already consulting stakeholders concerning new targets for 2030.

At the same time, public acceptance for the development and extension of the energy infrastructure is extremely low. Everywhere in Europe, citizens’ action committees get involved with the construction of new power lines, showing antipathy. Approval procedures often take years, and transmission system operators (TSOs) are facing a flood of lawsuits against the planned power supply lines that, again, delays the process. This paradox is a major breaking point for the completion of an internal market for electricity.

What European electricity consumers apparently do not understand is that, a further increase of power from RES must go hand in hand with a corresponding extension of the grid infrastructure. These are inextricably linked, since the nature of electrical power supply has changed significantly.

Simply speaking, the function of a grid is to transport the energy from where it is produced to where it is needed – for instance, from a power plant to private consumers in a city, or to companies in industrial areas. Speaking of distances, production and consumption of electricity have traditionally been set up very close to each other. With the turn towards the production of renewable energies, this is changing. Wind energy, for example, can be produced best in areas where the electricity is not usually needed – this is especially true for offshore wind energy. In addition, unlike traditional power plants, renewable energy production is often dependent on the current weather situation, which leads to significant fluctuations of energy flows. Having these two problems in mind, it is easy to understand how significantly the requirements for the capacity and flexibility of power grids have been changing.

Younger EU citizens, like me, have never experienced a black-out – a total breakdown of power supply. Our daily life, as well as the European economy, depends on a constant and secure supply of electricity. We take the availability of electricity for granted, but do not accept an adequate and necessary improvement of our grids. The consequences are already visible in a number of member states today. In some cases, renewable energy production facilities like wind parks are shut down because of the grid’s incapacity to transport all the energy to the consumers. Expensive energy from RES is simply lost. In other cases, producers face negative prices for electricity at the stock market, which basically means they have to pay their customers for ‘buying’ their energy surplus, because the supply is higher than the demand in certain areas. Lastly, grid incapacity in one member state can easily effect the surrounding countries when unwanted electricity spillovers block the power lines there. These consequences go against the idea of a liberal and common European market for electricity, and end up costing a lot of money.

The EU, national governments and TSOs have, all together, increased their efforts to coordinate a simultaneous development of RES production and grid capacity. New instruments like financial participation for citizens, compensation payments for municipalities or the constant search for new technologies have been, or are currently being, introduced to strengthen public support. Hopefully, these will lead to a higher appreciation for the vital role of power for our daily life. The public needs to understand the urgency of the grid issue.

Acceptance of renewables and acceptance of infrastructure development are two sides of the same coin. Support for one requires the support for the other. Not in my backyard – or what economists call ‘beggar thy neighbour’ – is not an option.