Dr. Heinz Ossenbrink, Head of the EC's Renewable Energy Unit: 2010 is "the year" for renewables

In this exclusive interview held at the Institute for Energy’s headquarters in Petten (Holland), Heinz talks to Renewable Energy Magazine about the work of the REU and the European Union’s role in developing renewable energy.

The Institute for Energy (IE) is one of the seven scientific institutes of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. Its multidisciplinary team of around 300 academic, technical, and support staff provides support to EC policies related to both nuclear and non nuclear energy “in order to ensure sustainable, safe, secure and efficient energy production, distribution and use”.

The mission of the Institute for Energy’s Renewable Energies Unit (REU)is to support European policies on the introduction of renewable energies into the energy-supply system by providing reference on relevant technological issues, on enhancing energy end-use efficiency in Europe, and on providing expertise for the implementation of sustainable development concepts.

The Unit undertakes in-house research and development in selected fields requiring further European effort, especially related with photovoltaic energy and biofuels. “These are relatively difficult issues”, explains the head of the REU, Dr. Heinz Ossenbrink. “In photovoltaics, prices are still relatively high and we want to compete and reach grid parity, while there is still an ongoing debate about the sustainability of the extended use of biofuels. For this reason, we have focused our efforts on these two areas”.

Dr. Ossenbrink is an example of the quality of the scientists working in the Institute for Energy. His main areas of expertise include photovoltaic solar energy, biofuels and hydrogen storage, and he is passionate about renewable energies. Ossenbrink is very prolific, having published around 100 scientific texts. He continues to remain as enthusiastic about renewable energy as when he took the reins of the REU in 1994.

Interview date: December, 2009

Interviewer: Toby Price

Part of the REU’s mission is to keep policymakers informed about developments in the sector. What is of most interest to them at present?

What they really want to find out is the status of each technology and their development in the future with a view to reaching the 2020 target. Each Member State is working on its plans to achieve their national targets and here is where the technology mix will be a very important factor. Each country’s renewable resources are very different and we assume that each will select the best combination of technologies based on the resources at their disposal. With this type of mix, we believe the 20% target in 2020 can be achieved.

The Renewable Energy Directive enables Member States to import green electricity from other Members States to fulfil their 2020 commitments. Do you believe this mechanism will be used?

We will see if this scheme works. It was a requirement in getting approval for the Renewable Energy Directive from all 27 Member States. They wanted to be sure that if one country can easily achieve its objectives and have an overcapacity of renewable energy, it can exchange it physically and statistically with another country. This will depend on bilateral agreements between countries, although this mechanism provides renewable rich nations to export clean energy and generate wealth.

This is something Spain is considering doing to export its solar thermal electric energy, which leads me on to Desertec. Do you believe Desertec is a reasonable concept that could become reality, or is it just a tool for promoting the debate about solar thermal electric energy?

It’s a mix of the two. What is certainly very surprising is that it is the first time a serious effort has been made to propose a very big renewable energy project including financing. Financing of large renewables projects is very difficult and here is where Desertec gives a very good example of how to combine finance sector companies with engineering and R&D firms into something which makes sense. We will have to wait and see if locating part or all of this project in Africa is a positive or negative factor, solely based on the argument that the solar radiation is higher in that region. It’s not so much higher than in countries such as Spain or Southern Italy, but certainly the space and real estate is available. technically its feasible, although the figures I know in terms of cost appear to be on the high side, and I am convinced that it could be done more cheaply.

What is the biggest opportunity for renewables in Europe?

The 27 Member States have made a real effort. In fact, it is the only assembly of countries in the world to have set themselves mandatory targets. There is no other example. The 20% target for 2020 means that renewables could become the third largest economic sector because all the money is basically turning in Europe, from wind turbine and solar panel manufacturers through to assemblers to the sale of electricity.

Europe is number one in exporting wind turbines, its number two in the production of photovoltaic systems and is number one in many of the biomass technologies. It has considerable experience and this represents a great economic opportunity. Europe invests a great deal in R&D in the renewbles sector at a time when everyone is complaining that Europe is falling behind Asia and the US. I believe this is something that Europe must not lose and I think the Renewable Energy Directive is putting more steam into renewables R&D.

What do you expect from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in the next five years?

The best case scenario is that IRENA establishes binding objectives for its members, just like the European Union has done. The worst scenario is that it merely becomes a club of countries that talk about the opportunities and challenges for renewables on the way to their next meeting.

Do you believe the EU could have a key role in pushing IRENA to introduce such binding targets?

Well, we could certainly use the argument that if we have done it, then you can too. The EU could be an example to follow, despite the fact that the members of IRENA are very different in terms of renewable resources, political systems, cultures, etc.

The REU is currently involved in a project that we call ‘20% Renewables for Africa’, which involves supporting the African Union in following our example when deciding how to organise its renewable energy industry into networks, associations and political movements in a mush shorter timeframe than we have taken in Europe. I have been in the renewables industry 27 years and it has taken 27 years to get to where we are now.

IRENA could help develop these interconnected systems between regions and countries, although it will have to compete with the International Energy Agency, which has discovered renewables in the last two or three years and has a great deal of influence, since it represents the OECD countries, which are responsible for the majority of the energy consumed in the world.

Finally, what resolutions should the EU set itself for 2010?

2010 will be a very decisive year, because it is when Member States have to present their National Reneawble Energy Plans. Our window of opportunity is now, not in 2020. What we have in 2020 will be decided in 2010. I always say that 2010 is “the year” for renewable energies, however not many people are aware of this.

One also has to remember that reaching the 2020 targets do only depends on out ability to increase our renewable energy generation capacity, but also on cutting our energy consumption. This is especially critical in heat generation, where it is quite likely that we will not have enough renewable energy available to meet current demand. Traditional barriers between energy efficiency programmes and renewable programmes must become transparent.

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