The Commission's official explanation, from Cresson's office, is that the first grades awarded by Commission staff were too high -- a mistake. This was discovered when these grades were compared with the evaluation reports of two sets of experts, a technical panel and a strategic panel.
"What we have been correcting is projects that were upgraded, taking into account the views of the experts," says Jean-Christophe Filori, Cresson's spokesman. "We were just correcting the grades so they reflected the experts' evaluations." In a statement of September 15, the Commission adds that it "corrected the evaluation of certain proposals which did not meet the basic criteria known to all operators." Whether these criteria were widely known is subject to debate.
The "overgrading" explanation, however, does not tell us why Commission staff reportedly also changed the wording of expert peer reviews on at least some projects, turning positive evaluations into negative evaluations. Purported evidence of this tampering, though specifically denied by Director of Energy Ezio Andreta, was shown on German television in "before and after" film footage of original and allegedly doctored consensus reports signed off by the experts (see separate story). Some experts have since confirmed this aspect of the television programme's report.
Nonetheless, Andreta assures no such changes were made. The original comments of the technical experts remain a true record of their opinions, he states.
Allegations about the reasons for the downgrading range from the hysterical, to the unbelievably banal. The German TV documentary "Monitor" suggested a high level conspiracy led by Cresson, a former Prime Minister of nuclear powered France, to discredit renewables. In this way nuclear would become a shining example of clean power technology. This hypothesis is categorically denied by Cresson.
"There is absolutely no political will to downgrade renewables. Madame Cresson is keen to reach the 62% target and she supports it," says Filori, referring to the European Parliament's request for 62% of the total Non Nuclear Budget to be devoted to renewables, including spending under the Thermie demonstration programme. "It would have been inconceivable, given the insufficient number of good quality projects covering renewable energy," for the Commission to have allotted the 58.6% of Joule cash agreed with Parliament and the Council of Ministers. "We are looking at possible ways to improve the percentage of renewables," continues Filori. "There should be no confusion about Madame Cresson's intentions. She is committed to renewables."
At least some members of the European Parliament's energy committee are not disposed to believe anything of the sort. Hiltrud Breyer from Germany and Ireland's Nuala Ahern are scathing about the explanation they received of "some internal Commission problem" which led to claimed problems of overgrading. "We believe this is not correct and expect that an inquiry would show this," they wrote to Cresson on July 27.
Meantime they are tenaciously ferreting around after the "truth" as part of an investigation group. What they have unearthed so far could point to an internal feud between Andreta and his head of renewables, Wolfgang Palz. Palz was reportedly in charge of the first gradings -- and the two men are not known to see eye to eye. It is hard to believe, though, that a possible personal difference of opinion could end up robbing renewables of over $20 million. The truth, it seems, remains to be discovered by the investigating team.