Commissioner backs down on directive -- National policies given five years grace while commission thinks

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The European Commission has backtracked from its earlier controversial plans for creating an internal market for electricity from renewable energy. Loyola de Palacio, the EU Energy Commissioner, has announced that she intends to delay from proposing a harmonised pan-European system of renewables support in her latest attempt at a directive to promote renewable energy. "We do not have sufficient experience which would allow us to decide for one particular system," she explains.

Instead, the commission will adopt the "pragmatic approach" of studying member states' experiences with their own different national support systems so that it can make a proposal for a harmonised support system within five years, she says.

The commissioner's decision has been greeted with relief in Germany and Spain where subsidised payment for kilowatt hours from renewables plant would not have been accepted on a harmonised market. Their generous support schemes can remain in place for another five years. Manuel Bustos of Spain's renewables producers association says he "fully supports the continued right of member states to set their own renewables objectives."

De Palacio's change of direction is the latest in a series of setbacks to the commission's ambition for a single European market for trade in renewables. It ditched two previous attempts at a directive to this end as a result of strong protests, particularly from the German wind lobby. Countries with fixed price support systems, which the commission has said would distort a competitive European market for renewables, have been anxious to protect them.

Non binding targets

Outlining the "major principles" of her proposed directive on April 10 -- the day it was sent for consideration to all the European Commissioners -- De Palacio claimed it would establish a regulatory framework necessary to achieve the EU objective of 12% energy consumption from renewables by 2010.

The major plank of the proposals is for national targets for electricity from renewable sources for each EU member state. The draft directive will contain "quantitative indications" for targets, compatible with the community's overall 12% renewable energy goal. De Palacio's decision to settle for the softer option of indicative targets reflects the hostility of most member state government's towards legally binding targets. At the same time, it will disappoint the European Parliament, the renewable energy industry and environmental groups which have campaigned recently for binding targets. She proposes, however, that if countries do not comply with their agreed targets, the commission will be able to "present proposals" to the parliament, presumably with the aim of putting pressure on foot-dragging governments.

The targets the commission proposes are calculated to lead to renewables providing 22% of the community's electricity by 2010. Some of the national targets are based on countries' existing domestic goals, but nearly half of the EU's members will need to adopt more ambitious policies to meet their targets.

Priority access

De Palacio also proposes priority access to the grid for renewable projects, transparent and non-discriminatory costs for connecting green producers, and that national authorisation procedures for renewable projects be streamlined and expedited. Her draft proposal takes into account responses from member state governments over a series of suggested measures that she put to them in December 1999 (Windpower Monthly, January 2000). It also follows closely a resolution on renewable energy by the European Parliament, which adopted a report by a Greens member, Claude Turmes, calling for binding and ambitious targets at national level, and for member states to be allowed to retain their existing systems for promoting renewable energy.

These were also the key demands of a number of environmental Non Government Organisation's and renewable energy groups -- including the European Wind Energy Association. EWEA's Vicki Pollard says: "I am generally pleased with the proposal. It takes on board a lot of points that the EWEA has made in the past, such as the principle of subsidiarity in national support schemes. But we are concerned that indicative targets are not strong enough. There should be a procedure that leads to mandatory targets."

From Spain, Bustos is enthusiastic about Palacio's focus on guaranteeing transparency and non-discriminatory criteria in negotiations between distribution companies and renewables energy producers. In Spain, electricity distributors maintain all rights over the use of lines that wind developers have paid for. Grid connection is one of the biggest obstacles to wind power installation in Spain.

If the European Commission adopts De Palacio's proposal, it will be presented to energy ministers at their meeting on May 30.

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