It started otherwise so well and so right. The governments of the European Union's member countries had agreed with the European Parliament to give wind and solar energy top billing. This time round as much as 62% of the energy research budget was to go to renewables.
The thinking behind this decision was visionary and trail blazing. Renewable energy is no longer the province of mad scientists, dreamers, and flower power people. It is a new technology, promising and much needed. Needed because global warming is forcing us to dramatically reduce the consumption of conventional energy sources, such as coal, gas and oil. Promising because in the right economic environment renewables are on the verge of being competitive -- even before politicians have seriously started to include a dirty-fuel element in energy prices. Promising, too, because renewable technology can be exported to the developing world on a massive scale, providing jobs in the West and giving less developed countries the means to develop economically without causing an explosive increase in the use of conventional fuels -- and without further construction of a large number of economically dubious nuclear power plants with all their inherent safety problems.
For all these well argued reasons, renewables are on the brink of coming into their own. What they need is a shove in the right direction. According to the plan, that shove was to have been provided by the EU's Joule programme.
It was not to be. Officials of the European Commission took it upon themselves to remove the priority rating for renewables. This is a fact we state without hesitance, even though the responsible Commissioner, Edith Cresson, still maintains there was no political motive for the dastardly deed.
The details of this affair were unravelled during an extraordinary chain of events occurring over several weeks, events which are almost as hair raising as the facts of the matter. It all started in the European Parliament committee which watches over the research programme and its budget. A story was told of mysterious meddling by Commission officials in the selection of energy projects for funding. This meddling had turned the budget allocation upside down, the committee had heard. For weeks the Commission denied doing any such thing. In the end though, as pressure from the press and Parliament mounted, officials finally admitted they had devised and introduced a whole new selection procedure after the successful applications had been identified and subsidy money allocated. This procedure is not included in the very precise guidelines for how the Commission, in close co-operation with technical experts, should allocate the budget on an objective and fair basis.
The first explanation for the meddling was that the Commission's own officials had manipulated the reports and gradings of projects completed by the outside technical experts being paid to advise the Commission. This they had done to favour projects within their own areas of authority. The European Parliament was far from convinced by this story, but was unable to dig up evidence to prove otherwise.
In stepped the press and provided the missing links, revealing that renewable energy projects were systematically hit while the conventional energy sector remained untouched. What's more the attack on renewables totally ignored -- and on occasion went directly against -- the recommendations of the technical experts the Commission claimed it was supporting.
The Commission's next explanation was that several renewable energy projects were thrown out at the last moment because the applicant companies did not have the necessary expertise or economic strength to complete the work. Whether this is correct or not has yet to be documented. Here the Commission has hit upon an explanation which is nearly impossible to investigate; the investigator requires a detailed knowledge of the renewables branch, including technical insight and an insider's understanding of each company. Fortunately, the experts employed by the Commission have such knowledge. They used their knowledge when deciding which projects should go forward for funding. It seems surprising that the EC's energy director should possess an even better fund of knowledge than all the experts combined.
So the situation is thus: employed officials of the European Union have played checkers with the renewables budget, moving huge sums of money from one area to another against the recommendations of technical experts and against the wishes of their political masters; they have done so to support a policy in direct opposition to that dictated by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. It seems things could hardly be worse.
Yet there is a silver lining to even this tale of woe. The fact that the whole sordid affair has come into the public eye is reason for optimism. Much of it has been exposed in print over the past three months. As a result the Commission has changed its tune and its course.
The total budget reserve has now been promised to renewable energy. The Commission is also preparing an extra call for proposals directed at renewables. These rectifying actions -- by which the EC is tacitly admitting guilt -- will probably be too late to get the renewables budget back into balance. But let us set that aside.
By agreeing to take rectifying action the Commission has revealed a sticky home truth: its explanation that there were too few good renewables projects to use the entire budget is sheer stuff and nonsense. If the renewable energy projects are really as hopeless as the Commission has claimed, why have they now earned the right to receive money from the reserve list, or from a second round of selections? But let us set that aside too.
These last lines are reserved for a little quite rejoicing over the fact that in this battle the renewable energy industry and the green lobby have beaten the atomic lobby and the giants of the electricity business. That green members of parliament have won a victory over secretive and powerful officials of the European Commission. That the European public has yet again forced the closed and immovable EC machine to open up and change course. These victories are worth noting, because the time has yet to come when they are run-of-the-mill.
Jens Bostrup, Information, Brussels correspondent