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EU: Reaching To The Grass Roots For Electricity

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The recent major electricity blackouts in Western Europe and North America serve as reminders that we live, above all, in an era ruled by electrical power. Without this invisible but potent form of energy, our societies would face collapse. Until recently, electrical power generation was the preserve of big utility companies, using massive coal, gas, or nuclear power stations. But now, as alternative "green" methods of electricity generation grow to maturity, the scale of things is changing. Even individuals can generate electricity for the common good.

Prague, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Farmers have always been enterprising when it comes to making money. They diversify their crops or herds readily when they see new opportunities, and they have also embraced nontraditional pursuits like agro-tourism.

But the latest way of supplementing rural incomes is striking. It's the generation of electricity for sale to the big energy companies for their national grids.

Perhaps it's not so strange after all. Farmers have in hand the raw material in the form of "biomass," or agricultural waste products, which can be used as fuel to make electricity. They have wind and sunshine, as well as the land to equip themselves with the giant, modern wind turbines or solar panels.

Environmental activist Sven Teske of the Greenpeace organization in Germany told RFE/RL that this new trend of "electricity farming" is particularly strong in Germany and Denmark. "There is a law called the renewable energy law in Germany, but there are similar laws in Denmark, France, and Spain, so there are quite a few countries which have this possibility," he said. "[I] think the German law is one of the best, because it guarantees a fixed price [for electrical deliveries] for 20 years."

Teske said the renewable-energy sector is growing fast in the EU -- even though it still only generates a fraction of the bloc's total electricity needs. The renewable-energy sector now employs some 130,000 people in Germany alone, which makes it a bigger employer than the mining, coal, and nuclear industries together. The importance of wind generation to the economy is also shown by the fact that wind-turbine manufacturers are the second-biggest users of steel in Germany, after the auto industry.

Teske said opportunities are potentially huge in Central and Eastern Europe for similar initiatives with renewable energy sources, but that at present the legal and physical infrastructure is generally lacking.

"It should pick up as soon as there is a real political framework for renewables," he said. "This is exactly the problem right now. The political framework is very incomplete, and we do need to have Europe-wide regulation, a Europe-wide scheme to phase in renewables, especially for the accession countries. [The EU] is going to be 25 countries, and we should be developing a standardized and harmonized scheme for phasing in renewables."

He noted that the old EU has set itself the goal -- in order to meet its targets for greenhouse-gas reductions under the Kyoto Protocol -- of doubling the amount of renewables by 2010, but that this scheme does not specifically apply to the incoming candidate countries.

In the Netherlands, another Greenpeace energy expert, Ruud van Leeuwen, said most of the accession countries presently have a real problem with pollution in electricity generation. The Easterners need less electricity than the more heavily industrialized West, but he said that -- per unit of electricity generated -- their plants are much more polluting. He, too, calls for concerted action by the European Union.

"If the EU is serious about its goals of improving environmental quality for all its member states, then Eastern Europe should be their prime area of attention. I think you can say that with the accession countries entering the European Union, the average of the environmental quality in the union will go down because of the fact that most of those countries are heavily polluted," van Leeuwen said.

Van Leeuwen said this is an ideal time for the accession countries to come to grips with the new technologies, which are now proven and no longer considered experimental. "You can either make the same mistake that the West has made, a long time ago, by choosing dirty, polluting techniques, or you can now be wise and adopt the new renewable techniques, which are widely available in the West and which are cost-competitive," he said. "And [then] you immediately start doing the right thing, and so you avoid paying a lot of money afterwards in cleaning up your fouled environment."

One unexpected development in the electricity market is that Western utility companies can now buy cheaply from Eastern Europe electricity that has been produced by nuclear power stations. This is controversial, in that it contrasts with expressions of concern from Western European governments and environmental bodies about the safety of many of the Chornobyl-style reactors in the former Eastern bloc.

The EU has demanded early closure of plants it considers unsafe.