Will the EU witness a Digital Green Deal? Strengths and weaknesses of the digital age have become more apparent over the course of the pandemic, but how can policy makers address these challenges and interlink them with a comprehensive and ambitious ecological approach?
Henrike Hahn, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA, Bas Eickhout, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA and Céline Göhlich, Everyone Energy e.V., in a conversation with Martin Keim, Head of European Energy Transition Programme, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.
Martin Keim: Welcome everyone and thank you for joining the conversation. The first question goes to Henrike and Bas. We are in a quite particular and difficult situation right now because of the coronavirus pandemic, so in what way did this situation change the way policy makers actually do their daily business? Has the way they interact and implement laws changed, and what changes are implied for the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament?
Henrike Hahn: Thank you for this question. Yes, of course it has changed a lot. Our life is in front of screens the whole day now, so the time we spend with our colleagues is now in hours of video conferences. It’s spent in committee work and meetings instead of discussing and looking at each other when we talk about amendments; we now have to find a way to communicate with each other, to find compromises in a very different atmosphere because we aren’t meeting personally.
But I think it also opens the possibilities for us to have a broader perspective on what is possible via digitalisation. For example, now we are not in trains all the time. We have to think about our working procedures in general I think, so let’s see what happens. We do our best, but I am looking forward to seeing my colleagues in person again and to being efficient in the parliament building itself. Also on a legislative level, because when we are in the parliament we can watch and observe what the Commission is doing.
Bas, would you like to jump in on that one?
Bas Eickhout: Yes, very briefly because it’s comparable to what Henrike said. My daily life totally changed; it is almost all now spent behind the computer, but it’s a mixed bag on whether it is good or not.
For me, the most positive side is that you are now thinking more of organising meetings where everyone can join in from all over Europe, or globally. For example, recently we had a climate core discussion with a minister from Sweden, whereas in the old days you had to wait until the minister came to Brussels.
It really gives you many more opportunities to talk with each other, but the real negative side is also what Henrike said. I mean politics is a contact sport. You need the corridors. You need to talk with each other. You need the moments where you are going to sit with someone and you really need to feel what someone means instead of just hearing what someone means. And this current setting is always more formal. There is no kind of informal way to chat through Zoom. Therefore, it’s more difficult to have an informal exchange of ideas and I think that makes politics much more difficult.
What I take from that is that the informal part of politics is of severely endangered with the digital means of working, but the more structured way of doing things allows us to actually have a benefit from this new situation as an organisational advantage. I would like to ask Céline to talk about how design matters and how policy design can also be changed in a way that allows us to be more efficient, and since we are talking about digitalisation today, I would also like to bring in European energy. What are the right policy design principles, if we are looking at the European Green Deal and more particularly at the European energy transition?
Céline Göhlich: Thank you. In the last project I worked for, we consulted various experts exploring guiding principles for the energy transition ahead, which we published in a policy brief in February this year. We observe that countries across Europe are facing similar transformation challenges regarding the energy transition, such as decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation of our energy system.
While most experts agree that, the technologies to shape these transformation processes are all available, we still observe that we are struggling to design an energy transition in line with our ambitious climate goals. Why is that so? One bottleneck that we identified was that we need a paradigm shift. Thus, we formulated policy principles which could help to bring forward this shift.
For example, with the deployment of decentralized energy resources we need to adopt a bottom-up logic next to the existing top-down logic in the energy system. What we call the principle of subsidiarity, means we need to empower people to actively participate in and benefit from the transition at small scales - not only as consumers but also as producers of renewable energy. Thereby little “units”, be it a local communities or city quarters, could drive energy transition from below and organise the process of producing, storing or selling energy locally to the extent they want. Larger renewable power plants and the grid are still relevant in such a system, especially to cover industrial demands but they also hop in when self-organized small-scale units cannot fulfil their energy needs.
An energy system that is guided by this principle of subsidiary, which encourages bottom-up transformation, also brings advantages for sector coupling and by democratizing the energy transition, it can increase social acceptance. Digitisation is essential here, as it is crucial to deal with the level of complexity and to coordinate the granularity of a decentralized system.
Of course, there still are multiple challenges regarding the energy transition, especially regarding the grid stability and security of supply. But in light of the urgency of the climate crisis, I think we need to come up with a new logic how we understand and shape our energy system.
I think this was quite helpful, you mentioned a couple of things that we are going to touch upon later, which is sector integration or sector coupling, the question of how to integrate different areas of energy, namely mobility, energy, heating. But before going to that I would like to hear a first comment from Bas and Henrike on the ideas you mentioned. And then a further question: What is the challenge of transforming these ideas into actual policy?
Bas Eickhout: First of all, thanks Céline, a couple of points are very recognisable. It’s absolutely true that the move to more renewables in your system is a decentralisation of the energy system, which instead of a few big players delivering to the consumer, you will now get many smaller players delivering and producing and consuming, so that needs a totally other grid in a way and is really a change in design.
At the same time, we still have some big industrial players that are built on fossils where we need to transfer the energy system to be more reliant on electricity.
The biggest challenge in all this design is that the system must be much more flexible and much more bottom-up. At the same time, we also need much more from the top down because there is big potential for renewables in off-shore grids or solar in the south. In order to make that off-shore grid effective, you need a collaboration between countries and matching those two different sizes into one grid is the biggest challenge for us.
I absolutely see a lot of potential. For example, looking into cities where entire quarters can become self-dependent. But on the other hand, you also need bigger infrastructure to balance out the variability here in renewables. Meeting those two dimensions is a difficult task, we have not found the right approach and that’s one of the most important difficulties we see in the energy transition now.
Henrike, would you like to comment on Céline’s and Bas’ points and whether maybe the EU industrial strategy can solve the problem of combining top-down and bottom-up approaches?
Henrike Hahn: The energy transition on a European level is a very complicated thing because it i a very broad playing field. At the moment, I work as a rapporteur in the ECON committee on the Just Transition Fund and in the ITRE committee as a Green Shadow and we discuss on a very real basis if we are willing to implement the Green Deal, a green industrial strategy and energy transition in Europe. I understand how challenging it is to steer the decarbonisation of the energy mix and industries from the European level, while considering local heritage, needs and concerns, and the jobs at stake.
It is a complex process because there are many perspectives about that issue, we discuss about jobs, fears, health issues, lobbyist interests, environmental and climate aspects etc.
I agree that a successful energy transition requires decentralisation, with energy communities, prosumers, micro-grids, etc. complemented with some large projects, such as electricity corridors and off-shore renewable energy plants. The same delicate balance must be struck also in energy policy. EU energy and industry policies and strategies must set top-down direction, targets and milestones. They are important in identifying the key elements of the green transition, the "no-regret options", such as renewable energies and energy efficiency. They coordinate national approaches, take up best practice examples, and support and enable local actors to choose their most appropriate decarbonisation pathways.
Céline, what do you think is the most important thing to help incentivise people to be active in the energy transition from the ground level and what kind of incentive can digitalisation be? What digital tools or strategies are the most apt to make people active?
Céline Göhlich: The most important aspect is to integrate and include people in the energy transition and the value it creates. For example, we could make it easier for communities to benefit actively from a wind farm or a PV park, by having some revenues from these renewables go into a local kindergarten or into a local hospital – something that is tangible for people. It is important to have regional value creation in order to make sure citizens understand, in very tangible terms, the value of renewables. Studies show that there is clear link between community wind or solar farms and an increase in social acceptance for these projects. The EU can be a progressive agenda-setter here in order to empower renewable energy communities.
Digitization is an important tool on many levels. On the one hand, it can help to facilitate the inclusion of people by making process more transparent and less bureaucratic. One the other hand, digital tools will be very important to coordinate sector coupling, for example to make best use of the batteries of electric vehicles when they are parked by storing electricity and allowing the owner to benefit financially. These are just a few examples of how digitization can expand the scope of solutions for the energy transition.
I would like to get back to Bas again to talk about the ‘Next Generation EU’, the recovery proposal that our Commission has just come up with and the main aspects when it comes to policy fields that were addressed. What are the most important things we need to tackle right now in the digital single market? Is there one aspect that would be the particularly urgent?
Bas Eickhout: ln the end, it is the plain connectivity which is still very poor. It became visible now thanks to all the people who had to work from home during the pandemic.
There is also a big danger in the current setup that digitalisation and the Green Deal become competitors. And to add on to what Céline said, which is if we are really thinking of going to a renewable future, then digitalisation becomes key. You need the smart software in order to know when to charge, when to deliver or take it from the net, and so on. For all these kinds of matters your connectivity must be good, otherwise that entire system will not work. Therefore, a crucial part of a renewable energy system and the Green Deal is also connectivity.
So, that is one of the challenges and also one of the dangers I currently see in the setup of the recovery package.
Henrike, do you want to react to Bas’ comment? Is there going to be a real danger of digitalisation versus the Green Deal? I would also like to come back to the SMEs and to regional value creation which was mentioned by Céline.
Henrike Hahn: Digitalization affects so many sectors – from industry, mobility, energy, to agriculture – and they are all at the core of the Green Deal. It is not necessarily a competition; it really has to be woven together as Bas just said.
One of the weaknesses of the current industry strategy of the Commission is that it focuses on large companies and not on SMEs. We Greens call for advice and technical support to small firms, to raise their awareness about what greater environmental sustainability means for them, and to encourage them and give them the tools to participate in the ecological transition, including through greater use of digital tools.
We need to promote the reduction of energy use and we need to cover energy needs from production processes with renewable sources. We want to achieve the broader decarbonisation objectives in line with the Paris Agreement. We have to bundle everything together and define a consistent strategy to implement the Green Deal, which is a great project for the sake of the people in Europe.
Thank you very much everyone.
The conversation took place on 5 June 2020.