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An official inquiry into the scandal surrounding the European Union's non nuclear energy research budget would only be justified if Commission officials were failing to understand the seriousness of the situation. That doesn't seem to be the case any longer. It seems any wrongdoing in the selection of projects for Joule support is going to be put right. Nonetheless the Commission denies it has conspired to rob renewable energy of its rightful budget. But it is hard to relate such categorical statements to relate them to the facts. The Commission must not be allowed to hide behind a defence of "false accusation."

There is a danger, fortunately now reasonably remote, that the bureaucratic machinery about to pour millions of European Currency Units (ECU) into wind energy could be brought to a grinding halt. However strong the moral reasons for doing so, in the balance they could never outweigh the harm caused if European renewable energy research was put on ice. A full scale official inquiry into the current scandal surrounding the European Union's non nuclear energy research budget would only be justified if Commission officials were failing to understand the seriousness of the situation. That doesn't seem to be the case, not any longer that is.

The most recent vibes emanating from Brussels suggest that any wrong is going to be put right. And quickly. There is talk of a new call for proposals, to be made as soon as January. An action plan has been promised, aimed at making sure that future proposals "are of sufficient quality" to get through the gauntlet of Commission procedure. This is good news for the hundreds of people in the wind energy industry unwittingly embroiled in the current budget debacle. With 143 wind projects submitted for funding, by an average of four organisations per project from at least two different countries, upward of 1000 of wind's key people in Europe are deeply interested in the fate of the programme. In some cases their very livelihood depends upon it.

The Commission emphatically denies allegations that it has conspired to rob renewable energy of its rightful budget. Projects were just not good enough to use the money available, is the official claim. And any suggestion that technical evaluation reports were tampered with to prove this point is absolutely

untrue, they say.

Such categorical statements should be music to the ears. But it is hard to relate them to the facts. The renewables budget is ECU 100 million in this first round of the new Joule programme, yet only ECU 81.6 million is to be spent. The new Joule's budget, at ECU 225 million, is more than double that of the 1990-1994 round, yet wind is to get less. Just ECU 18.6 million is coming our way to support 31 projects, compared with ECU 23.9 million to support 35 projects in three sub-programmes last time round.

The Commission says there were too few good projects. But by all accounts this cannot be the case. Wind proposals went through the most thorough technical and strategic evaluation (by highly qualified industry gurus) ever undertaken, with 67 winning through to the "go" category. The Commission, so far, is funding just 31. Some 20% of the renewables budget remains unused. There have been suggestions that many proposals did not meet the EC's criteria. If this is so, how did they pass such thorough technical scrutiny? Unless, that is, the experts who worked for two whole weeks matching proposals with criteria were not privy to the right criteria. Which begs the question, was the wind industry ever clearly informed of them?

Research Commissioner Edith Cresson and her Director of Energy, Ezio Andreta, are putting great emphasis on the approval given to the Commission's selection of Joule projects by the programme's advisory committee, made up of national representatives of member countries. This watchdog body, however, was not only chained, but muzzled, too. To start with, the committee's opinion is only of "utmost importance" to the Commission; there is no obligation to obey. Secondly, all reference to fierce objections by committee members about the manner in which the selections were made were expunged from the official record of that meeting. At least three national representatives have demanded that the minutes of the meeting be corrected.

Some of the allegations made by Members of the European Parliament and the press have been highly inflammatory, with little relation to fact. But the Commission must not be allowed to hide behind a defence of "false accusation." There is good reason to believe there have been deliberate efforts to distort the truth, not to mention an arbitrary decision to move millions of European Currency Units from one area of energy research to another, without political sanction -- a move which is breathtaking in its audacity. If we are to retain any faith in what goes on in Brussels, it is to be hoped that Commissioner Cresson comes up with some very good reasons for ignoring the opinions of (expensive) technical experts, for ignoring the guideline budgets, and for deciding that fossil fuels and energy conservation are so much more deserving of support than wind and the other renewables. Having heard the explanation, we expect rectifying action. Sooner rather than later.

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