Russia supplies 40% of natural gas consumed in the European Union (EU), including 100% of the gas for six EU members and over 50% for a further six EU nations, representing $400 billion annually. So, when war began between Russia and Ukraine it sparked an energy security crisis in the EU, which has been accused of de-facto funding the war through its fossil fuel purchases. In reaction, the EU released a plan last week to rapidly reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels. While the aim is to improve the energy independence of the bloc, the strategy promises to provide a boost for smart buildings, renewable energy, and the environment.
“The new geopolitical and energy market realities require us to drastically accelerate our clean energy transition and increase Europe's energy independence from unreliable suppliers and volatile fossil fuels. REPowerEU is the European Commission’s plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030, in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine,” reads the plan. “Ending the EU’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels will require a massive scale-up of renewables as well as faster electrification and replacement of fossil-based heat and fuel in industry, buildings and the transport sector. However, saving energy is the cheapest, safest and cleanest way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel imports from Russia.”
To achieve increased energy efficiency and clean power, the EU will find a smart buildings industry and a renewable energy sector that have been fighting for decades to overcome market barriers and achieve the same goals. Buildings represent 40% of total energy consumption and 36% of GHG emissions, and many have been calling for stronger regulation on efficiency and clean energy that would support climate change mitigation and market growth. The urgency of the withdrawal from Russian supply has made removing some of these barriers a critical element of the REPowerEU plan.
“This proposal also amends Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings. It builds on the existing framework on energy performance of buildings and renewable energy. It introduces obligations on Member States to promote the deployment of solar installations on buildings,” continues the comprehensive plan that includes; "A Solar Rooftop Initiative with a phased-in legal obligation to install solar panels on new public and commercial buildings and new residential buildings. And, a doubling of the rate of deployment of heat pumps, and measures to integrate geothermal and solar thermal energy in modernized district and communal heating systems."
A legal requirement for all new buildings to install rooftop solar will also drive the energy storage market, these complementary technologies and limited market penetration due to cost but will rise together with a legal obligation for one. Alongside a regulatory drive for heating and building efficiency, these changes are likely to encourage all new EU buildings to adopt an increased level of smart technology to take advantage of additional energy and cost-saving, as well as a wide range of human-centric applications. However, while this is a positive step, new buildings alone are unlikely to make a huge dent on EU energy demand or climate change efforts.
“We praise the target and the obligation of solar on new roofs. But new buildings are the exception, not the rule. We need to quickly solarise the existing ones and call on the co-legislators to introduce a ‘consent by silence policy’ across the EU for those who want to install solar on their roofs. This would be the best guarantee to prioritize rooftop, distributed solar over more disputed solutions”, said Davide Sabbadin, policy officer for energy and circular economy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
“This [heating strategy] is too much of a time-distant proposal to have a real effect on the coming years. Not only had IEA already suggested 2025 as the latest possible date for such a phase-out, but the math clearly indicates that gas boilers installed in 2029 will still be burning fossil gas up to 2050. Being heating the largest gas market, this delay is undermining our climate neutrality and energy independence goals”, added Sabbadin.
From an environmental perspective, it can be hard to comprehend some elements of the REPowerEU plan, but this is not an environmental strategy. The objective of this strategy is to create energy independence from Russia. Another example of this environmental confusion is the plan to relax permitting procedures for renewable energy projects, which has also been met with opposition from the environmental community.
"Whenever we talk about rapid deployment of renewables, there is an elephant in the room - getting a permit. It might take as long as nine years for wind and up to four years for solar projects, so this is time that we do not have and we have to speed things up,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, presenting the REPowerEU plan.
“Environmental legislation is not an obstacle to the deployment of renewables. In the midst of the biodiversity crisis, there is no justification to scrap key environmental assessments and set a dangerous precedent. Permit applications can be accelerated with more staff capacity, streamlined approaches and real public participation, without undermining fundamental nature and biodiversity safeguards”, responded Laura Hildt, policy officer for biodiversity at the EEB.
The EU target for renewable energy has also been raised from 40% to 45% in a range of moves that clearly have environmental benefits, even if those benefits are not entirely satisfying from an environmental perspective. The environmental and green building movements can live with the fact that the existential threat of climate change was not enough to force this level of regulatory change but a war was. The disappointment is that a plan designed for geopolitics does not consider the relatively small changes it would require to turn this strategy into an effective environmental and smart building development plan too.
“Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War