A new mission for electrical contractors: we must “REPower” Europe by improving energy efficiency and accelerating the deployment of renewables

In order to collectively tackle high energy prices crisis and address Europe’s overreliance on Russian fossil fuels, the EU Commission presented on 18 May a series of proposals, both legislative and non-legislative. This aims to help the bloc’s 27 member states provide more affordable, secure and sustainable energy to EU citizens and companies.

The ambition is high: Vice-President Frans Timmermans declared that this plan’s goal is to cut by 2/3 the  EU’s Russian gas consumption by the end of the year, and then totally get rid of it by 2027.

Three strategic pillars have been defined: (1) Saving energy; (2) Diversifying supplies and supporting our international partners; (3) Accelerating the rollout of renewables.

To turn their vision into action, policymakers will have to rely a lot on electrical contractors across Europe, as two of the three pillars are partly dependent on EuropeOn members’ expertise.

Saving energy

It is quite unprecedented and therefore worth highlighting: while EU policymakers have been working for over a year on revising the EU’s energy efficiency objectives (as part of the now famous “Fit for 55 package”), the Commission just amended its own proposal to suggest an ever more ambitious target. The latter now proposes that EU member states collectively achieve a further increase in energy efficiency ambition of 13% in 2030 compared to 2020 (in the initial proposal, the Commission proposed 9%).

Indeed, with energy supply becoming more constrained and costly, there is room for new targets and more arguments to improve the efficiency of our energy consumption. Working with end-users, e.g. when they do home-visits, electrical contractors have a key role to play to ensure that consumers make the best possible use of the energy available. There are many ways in which they can help Europeans make their energy use more efficient, from switching to solar panels (but we will come back to that) and heat pumps to setting up controls and automation systems in buildings, and from upgrading electrical installations to electrifying new sectors… for instance, did you know that battery electric vehicles have a conversion efficiency of 80-90% from tank to wheel, compared to 20-30% for internal combustion engines?

Beyond the new binding energy efficiency target, the Commission also formulates various recommendations to Member States such as banning fossil fuel-based boilers and redirecting subsidies to incentivise heat pump installations, with the objective of doubling the rate of their deployment over the next 5 years. One incentive could be reducing VAT rates for high efficiency heating systems. Besides, the Commission will consider a legislative initiative to increase the share of zero emission vehicles in public and corporate car fleets above a certain size. They will also put forward a legislative package on greening freight transport.

Accelerating the rollout of renewables

While energy efficiency is paramount to realise the REPower EU Plan’s vision and to reach our Green Deal overall objectives, Europe must also ensure that the energy we do use is clean. With REPower EU, the Commission proposes to set a legally binding target of 45% of renewable energy in the EU energy mix by 2030 (the previous target was at 40%).

It this new Plan, the Commission has high hopes for solar energy, with a dedicated “Solar Strategy” and a particular attention on solar PV. Why? Because it is considered “one of the fastest technologies to roll out” but also “one of the cheapest”. For solar PV altogether, the Commission aims to double its capacity by 2025 (i.e. 320 GW) and install 600GW by 2030.

But how to make this objective a reality? The Commission first and foremost wants to impulse an accelerated deployment by making rooftop PV installation compulsory for all new public and commercial buildings (with a useful floor area exceeding 250 m2) by 2026. The same requirement will be expected for all existing public and commercial buildings (with a useful floor area exceeding 250 m2) by 2027. By 2029, all new residential buildings (without restriction) will also have to abide by this rule. On top of it, there will be further provisions so that all new buildings are “solar ready”, i.e. designed to optimise the generation potential on the basis of the site’s solar irradiance, enabling the installation of solar technologies without costly structural interventions, etc. All of this will be enshrined into law in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) and must still be approved by the Parliament and the Council of Member states (see other news).

Another breakthrough is to make permitting procedures shorter and simpler for all renewable power plants, as these burdensome procedures are regarded as a key hurdle in achieving the energy transition. The law (Renewable Energy Directive) will be amended to reduce considerably permit-granting processes and to ensure that Member States proactively identify “go-to areas” that are suitable for such large-scale projects.

Besides, the Commission aims to strengthen legal requirements in Ecodesign and Energy labelling regulations for solar PV. A stakeholders’ consultation is already underway.

Other recommendations and non-legislative actions include: encouraging the development of BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaics), launching a European Solar PV Industry Alliance to increase PV manufacturing in Europe, encouraging the prosumer model and energy communities (for example by setting up at least one renewable energy community in every municipality with a population higher than 10 000 by 2025), etc.

As stated in the Solar Strategy, “The installation sector is a particularly strong source of local jobs, representing 80% of the total, while the operation and maintenance sector accounts for 10%”. It is crystal clear that, with such objectives and legal requirements, electrical contractors can expect their skills to be in even higher demand, as the renewable energy market to grow even faster than before. Rooftop PV will particularly be in the spotlight and is a segment of activity that concerns many EuropeOn members, either large or small. Indeed, electrical contractors are responsible for installing and integrating rooftop PV and they already report increasing demand for rooftop PV which will provide new business and job opportunities, provided that we can find suitable candidates (see next point).

Making it real…despite shortages of workers, skills and supplies

With the REPower EU Plan, the Commission aims to remove some well-identified barriers slowing down the efficient and clean energy model that many are calling for. Brussels also acknowledges other barriers, that have been identified for several years as well – such as workers and skills shortages – or that have appeared more recently – such as supply shortages – but suggests very little to address them.

The only actions suggested by the Commission to solve skills and workforce shortages in the context of higher targets for renewables deployment are contained in the EU Solar Strategy. Besides hinting at EU subsidies (especially Erasmus+), the Commission plans to establish a large-scale skills partnership under the so-called EU Pact for Skills (initiated in late 2020). The problem, often highlighted by EuropeOn, is that the Pact targets mostly industries, not national authorities despite the fact that they have full competence on trainings and education and are the only ones in a position to provoke the systemic change we need in that respect.

If rooftop PV is such a focus point in the Commission’s REPower EU Plan, it is partly thanks to its ability to be quickly installed, compared to e.g. setting up a solar farm. However, quick installation does not equal quick installer training. Rooftop PV implies electrical skills. Training qualified professionals takes time but it’s the only way to provide safe, efficient installations that can be integrated with energy storage and heat-pumps, to foster the prosumer society that the Green Deal objectives are calling for.

To conclude on skills and labour issues, it is worth mentioning that the Plan spells out that “Member States are encouraged to analyse the skills gap in the solar energy sector and develop training programmes fit for purpose, taking into account the potential to increase women’s participation”, an ask that EuropeOn has been supporting for a long time and that could be translated into the Fit for 55 package currently under negotiation.

Electrical contractors have been reporting increasing vacancies all across Europe with currently, for example, job openings amounting to 1/5 of the whole sector in Germany. But now, another pressing issue is surfacing: supply shortages. We lack the hands, but we also lack the materials and products to make the energy transition happen.

At this stage, the Commission is announcing an EU Solar PV Industry Alliance, with the objective to assess opportunities to manufacture PV in Europe, as it was the case in the past. Besides, the new “Chips Act” will look into making the EU a global leader in semi-conductor production and R&D. Further, the Commission pledges it will put forward soon a legislative proposal on the supply of critical raw materials and will intensify cooperation with third countries to access raw materials.

In the next months, the legal proposals will be discussed as an addendum to the Fit for 55 Package. The Plan and all the legislative and non-legislative proposals it contains can be found AT THIS LINK.