Could consumers tip the balance of the EU energy transition?

  • Posted on: 21 June 2016
  • By: Yamina SAHEB

The 2016 edition of the EU Sustainable Energy Week was about empowering consumers. At the opening ceremony, Mr. Miguel Arias Cañete, the commissioner of climate and energy, made it clear that the energy transition is also about the active consumer engagement in the energy system. After centuries of relegating the energy consumer to a passive role, as simply a purchaser of (mostly) dirty energy sources, EU citizens will slowly move to a more active position by becoming energy producers: producers of energy savings and renewable energies.

Energy savings (energy efficiency and demand-response) will allow us to reduce demand and peaks. This in turn will shift loads to achieve a fine balance between energy demand and supply. Renewable energies will empower consumers by offering them the opportunity to actively participate in the energy market.

Like it or not, the energy transition will take place in our buildings, and to some extent in our transport/mobility. EU buildings need to be transformed from being energy-wasters to being highly energy efficient and better yet, energy-producers. In theory, no one in the ivory towers of Brussels decision-makers is against this transformation. (At least, they are not publicly against any segment of this transformation.) But when you start digging deeper, you realise that there is no consensus regarding how to transform the current building stock into this new energy-responsible building.

The insulation industry will claim that this transformation will only take place if we require super-insulated buildings for all of Europe, even in the South. This will create new cooling needs, but cooling needs are a business opportunity for cooling industry which will be spreading Europe with cooling equipment. Of course efficient ones!

Smart tools and smart appliances industries will argue that this transformation must result from the roll-out of smart meters, smart appliances, smart machines, smart things, smart etc. As if by making our buildings smarter, they will somehow stop leaking.

The heat-pump industry will argue that all buildings need bi-valent heat pumps, in order to allow a smarter demand/supply management and to increase the share of renewables in the building.

The battery industry will argue that you need to increase self-consumption of your own produced energy from the roof.

The renewables industry will argue that to empower consumers all roofs should be covered with photovoltaic panels, allowing them to produce energy. But we know that producing energy will not stop buildings from wasting energy.

And of course, each of these industries will come up with sophisicated reports, new technical standards and such. They will provide scientific evidence for whatever their claims. Of course, none of these reporting systems will be wrong per se. But none of them will really provide a full picture and integrated optimised solutions.

In reality the building is the smallest, and most complete supply-demand entity in which energy transition can be implemented. What this really means is that energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions should be integrated (and to use one of the Brussels buzzwords) in a smart way.

What is needed is to stop the waste of energy. We need to change to local storage in heat, cold and electricity and increased self-consumption, along with intelligent demand control systems. In theory, we can do all of this, but in practice it is complex.

In fact, the biggest challenge today is the fragmentation of the industry considered in charge of this transformation. In other words, it is the inexistence of such an industry aiming to transform the EU building stock, which is the major barrier in achieving the energy transition. The real challenge today is about getting these industries (insulation, appliances and equipment, smart things, battery storage, and renewables) to work together! And with the EU citizen as the focal point!

By coincidence, this year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week is followed by two important conferences. One on photovoltaics and the other on energy efficiency. Both conferences include several sessions on buildings. However, none of these two important conferences include a session on the integration of energy efficiency and renewables for buildings.  The first conference’s sessions are only about building integration photovoltaics (BIPV). I often wonder when I see this if we were still in the 70ies when PV was delivered alone without insulation nor connection to a heat pump, smart controls and batteries.

The second conference on energy efficiency also includes several sessions about buildings, but only from efficiency perspective. Here actors consider EU citizens as consumers, without imagining them as producers of energy. These very recent examples show that these two “sustainable energy” communities must meet and talk to each other. Why not include a session on the integration of renewables and energy efficiency at the next eceee summer study?

Europe has reached a new era in its energy policies and solutions. The EU citizen is no longer so gullible. The days of multiple actors intervening in our homes for months at highly cost must be overcome. Several demonstration projects show that net Zero-Energy Building Consumption is achievable, often at a very moderate cost, in each of the climate zones on the European continent. Innovative industries are already proposing prefabricated Zero Energy Renovation kits.

Those industries lacking vision and lagging behind this industrial renaissance which is currently taking place in Europe, will probably try to slow-down the process by using the usual argument of job losses. However, the temporary allure of an outdated industry can not last for long, especially if Juncker’s commission is as truly a forward-looking one as he has promissed. It is hard to imagine the digital generation competing for jobs in one of these conservative industries when the 4th industrial revolution is knocking at our doors!

Beyond energy transition and decarbonisation, the Energy Union and the “New Deal for Consumers” question the intellectual integrity of each of us. Let us be clear, these changes challenge our duty to our fellow EU citizens, and our own careers and profits. They require each of us to make an effort and to leave of the tower we have locked ourselves into for years.

This column was published for the first time on June 21, 2016 on eceee