“Think bigger” is the slogan atop the European Wind Energy Association’s website advertising the lobby group’s upcoming conference on offshore wind energy.
The slogan also suits an industry association that, at least in Brussels, no longer pays much attention to concerns of smaller firms in the renewable energy sector.
EWEA thinks big. The association’s larger members are the major sponsors of the conference March 10-12: Siemens; Dong Energy, the largest Danish electricity provider; and Vestas Offshore Wind, the largest Danish manufacturer of wind turbines.
The renewable energy industry began with small and mid-sized regional companies. Their founders and lobbyists were convinced green electricity would ultimately prevail, and they were ready to take on Europe’s large power companies.
The real test will be whether people will still support the long-term goal of providing 100 percent of energy needs through renewable sources in Europe.
Those times are gone. At least that’s what industry insiders are feeling more and more ever since large energy companies saw the sector’s profit potential and entered the water-, wind- and solar-power sectors.
The larger companies are also taking control of lobbying efforts, although interest groups such as the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) continue to exist. The group pluckily presents itself to the public with its slogan, “Mid-sized Wind Sector Assures Competition and Innovation.”
But within the wind-energy lobby EWEA, the small and mid-sized firms are losing influence. Only one BWE representative is among the leaders of the EWEA group in Brussels, the European Union’s de-facto capital.
A former Siemens manager, Markus Tacke, took up the job of EWEA president last autumn. He previously managed the wind operations of the German multinational conglomerate and ran the company's industrial electricity business. Mr. Tacke also has experience in the oil and gas business.
Such a career is not a rarity among the lobby’s managers, who are also drawn from large energy companies such as E.ON, Dong, Spanish utility Iberola and Italian peer Enel.
Other lobbying firms also include managers drawn from big business.
Oliver Schaefer is managing director of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA). He is also head of sales at Sunpower, which in 2011 bought into the French oil company Total.
EPIA’s management board furthermore includes managers from Total, and other energy giants such as German chemical firm Wacker-Chemie, U.S. chemical company DuPont and Italian energy company Enel. Representatives of large companies also have a majority on the solar-energy lobby’s management board based in Brussels.
The founders of the renewable energy sector are increasingly worried. They say the growing influence of big business in Brussels’ green-energy lobbies means companies are promoting interests that diverge more and more from those of small and mid-sized wind and solar companies.
EWEA spokesman Oliver Joy acknowledges the group’s policies and positions are not formulated in consultation with other renewable energy industries.
The small and mid-sized green-energy providers are also concerned about the planned European energy union. What initially looks like a good thing — electricity will be exchanged and traded throughout Europe — poses a danger to smaller players. That’s because, for example, only large wind parks will be competitive in the market over time.
Moreover, the German sector fears the European energy union would sink to the lowest level of support. As some countries in the E.U. offer little or no subsidies for wind and solar power, this would bring down the proportion of renewable energy to below 1 percent of electricity production.
For example, Poland — after years of controversy — only last week decided on a moderate subsidy for households who draw part of their power from rooftop solar panels; it is significantly lower than similar subsidies in Germany.
The conflict of interests is even more obvious in the European natural-gas market. The goal of green electricity providers is that gas, despite having a slightly less harmful effect on the climate than coal, will someday be fully replaced by wind and solar power.
Gas, however, continues to generate profits for the large companies and is often their core business. They want to keep this source of income rather than have to compete with windmills and solar energy systems.
“It’s no secret that in the short and mid-term, gas and renewable energies will together be an important constituent of the European energy system, to guarantee a secure and stable energy supply,” said EWEA managing director Thomas Becker.
Video: Finding the right energy mix.
For that reason, EWEA intends to begin cooperating with a European gas lobby. Many energy companies that also offer renewable power sources see gas as a back-up for weather-dependent technologies. Those companies have little interest in such technologies because energy-storage units are still too expensive and could reduce the share of gas in the energy sector.
Debates about long-term goals for the expansion of renewable energies in Europe are shifting, showing the changing landscape of influence.
In advance of the European Union setting its targets for renewable energy, the EWEA had advocated a binding goal of 30 percent of energy to be supplied by renewable sources by 2030; other lobbies had called for 45 percent. But when the E.U. set its target, the result was that countries in the European Union should ensure that 27 percent of final energy consumption is drawn from renewable sources – a non-binding goal.
For German lobby firms, the real test will be whether people will still support the long-term goal of providing 100 percent of energy needs through renewable sources in Europe. EWEA no longer pursues this goal with much pressure.
One victim of this development is the European Renewable Energy Council, or EREC, which had served as the umbrella organization for all renewable energy associations. Together with Prince Laurent of Belgium, the promoters of green energy renovated three 140-year-old neoclassic buildings into the lobby’s prestigious headquarters in Brussels. The plan was for EREC and the other interest groups to rent spaces there.
But shortly after renovations were completed, the wind-energy association EWEA moved out, and ultimately the European solar energy lobby EPIA did so as well. In spring 2014, both withdrew their membership from the umbrella group. EREC couldn’t pay the rent any longer and was forced to dissolve a year ago.
This article first appeared in daily newspaper Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]