The Ukraine war has put in the spotlight the fragility of Europe’s energy sufficiency and put on the table the need of gas and oil independence from Russia. With the European Green Deal making progress and the Fit for 55 package setting up climate ambition targets, the conflict has reinforced the need for an energy-sufficient Europe. Can we make it possible? We ask European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson, from Estonia.
This interview was originally published in the ALDE Party Liberal Bulletin in June 2022.
We are living extraordinarily difficult times due to the Ukraine war. Is the EU’s energy sufficiency at stake? How can the EU’s dependence on Russian gas and oil be reduced?
Putin’s war on Ukraine has made it clear that we need to move even faster to reshape the European energy system and end our dangerous dependency on Russian fossil fuels as soon as possible. It is clear that our first obligation is to help Ukraine survive and win this war, and in energy, one of our priorities has been ensuring that the electricity network of Ukraine continues to work. Since 16 March, the electricity grid of Ukraine has been synchronised with the continental European grid, which was a historical milestone in our relations.
At the same time, we are working to ensure reliable, secure and affordable supply of energy to European consumers. The RePowerEU Communication to replace Russian fossil fuels, either with other gas or oil sources or renewables and energy savings is a very powerful response by the EU to the situation in Ukraine. I know that as soon as possible is too late. Through a range of measures, we believe that we can move away from this dependence potentially cutting our imports of Russian gas by 2/3 by the end of this year.
The target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, presented under the Fit for 55 package is not only a goal, but a challenge. How does the European Commission monitor Member States and governments in order to achieve it?
The first thing to recall is that we have not actually finalised the Fit for 55 package. The Commission tabled a whole number of proposals last year – for example to increase our ambition for Renewable Energy and for Energy Efficiency from the existing EU legislation – but these proposals are still being negotiated with the co-legislators, namely the European Council and the European Parliament. If all goes well, we can make significant progress on the different proposals still this year. We also must then give Member States the necessary time to transpose the new rules into national law.
Are EU governments doing enough to promote and invest in renewable energies? Can the Commission accelerate the build-up of renewables and energy efficiency?
EU Member States have already come a long way in terms of energy efficiency and renewables – and we lead the world in many areas. Renewables are home-grown, they create jobs, and they spur innovation. They are a strategic investment in Europe’s security and independence. In the third quarter of 2021 the share of renewables already reached 37%, beating fossil fuels (35%). But of course governments can always do more when it comes to investment, and arguments are even stronger now in this unstable geopolitical situation.
Regarding energy efficiency, it is important to note that it’s not just for governments to overcome this challenge. It’s also something that we can all do as individual consumers. Every saving we can make in our own energy consumption will ease the additional costs of our energy bills and further reduce our dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
As an alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear energy seems like a greener solution to reduce emissions. How can nuclear energy contribute to reducing gas emissions? Is it safe to produce and maintain?
Every Member State has the right to choose their own energy mix. We have Member States that are moving away from nuclear, but there are some that are moving towards nuclear power.
To fulfil Europe’s climate neutrality ambition, all low-carbon energy sources are needed and nuclear energy has a clear role to play into this transition. The Commission’s long-standing position is to be technology neutral, as long as technologies chosen by the Member States guarantee the highest level of safety for the EU citizens.
The rise of energy prices last winter had a strong impact on consumers and the economy. How can the EU allow the single market to keep being competitive but at the same time offer affordable energy prices for its citizens?
Already in October 2021, the Commission presented a Communication on energy prices, including a toolbox, outlining what Member States can do under existing EU rules to help vulnerable consumers and businesses to face high prices, without distorting competition on the internal EU energy market. These covered three types of measures in particular: energy subsidies and vouchers, tax reductions and measures to avoid energy disconnection. But as the situation has evolved, it’s no longer sufficient. The Commission also introduced a minimum 80% gas storage level obligation for next winter to ensure security of energy supply, rising to 90% for the following years.
There is no single easy answer to tackle high electricity prices, given the diversity of situations among Member States in terms of their energy mix, market design, and interconnection levels. But our end-goal is clear: to keep electricity affordable without disrupting supply and boost further investments in the green transition.
You can now follow European Commissioner for energy Kadri Simson on Twitter here.