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Levelling the playing field: Aligning heating energy taxes and levies in Europe with climate goals

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Taxing energy in line with its environmental harm aligns the prices facing consumers with policy objectives. Energy taxes and levies encourage energy efficiency and raise revenues for governments, which can then dedicate them to energy transition projects. Not all energy sources are equal, however, when it comes to their environmental-damage costs. Adding taxes and levies disproportionately to electricity encourages the continuation of an emissions-intensive status quo and discourages investments in key decarbonisation technologies, such as heat pumps. This paper shines a light on the imbalance in energy taxation across almost all European markets and makes the case for reform.

The authors explain the current structure of energy taxes and levies in five key European countries where reform would be beneficial: Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany. All five countries overtax electricity — in three cases by more than 200% — and undertax oil and fossil gas while not taxing wood use at all. Only in Italy is the tax rate on heating oil close to the value of the environmental costs caused by its use.

The European Commission’s proposals in the Fit for 55 Package would go a long way towards addressing the taxation issue. But these proposals would need to be implemented and there’s no guarantee they’ll survive the upcoming negotiation process. Member States wishing to align their tax and levy policies with their climate targets can act now to begin the process of rebalancing.

The authors detail four approaches to rebalance energy taxes and levies, drawing on examples from around the continent.

  • Option 1: Lower tax on electricity for heating
  • Option 2: Environmental taxation
  • Options 3 and 4: Shift levies to public budget or fossil fuels

House power: the hidden powerhouse of the new energy landscape

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Raoul Dufy’s 1937 fresco La Fée Électricité — an arresting 600 square metre tribute to “the great adventure of electricity” — depicts science and technology leaps such as Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction, Gramme’s direct current dynamo, Baudot’s telegraph, and Edison’s incandescent light bulb. These developments changed the world in ways that were previously unfathomable.

Tackling the climate crisis while mitigating the impacts of the war in Ukraine and skyrocketing energy prices will require Europe’s policymakers to champion a new class of energy pioneers in the months and years ahead: households.

A spectrum of challenges

Europe faces a step-change within a step-change. Securing a clean, affordable and reliable energy system is no longer a case of moving fast without breaking things. We must now accelerate while fixing things.

This means ramping up green generation at an unprecedented scale and pace, shunning imported gas without over-relying on expensive alternatives — such as hydrogen in its rainbow of varieties — or relapsing on brown fuels. We also need to secure energy supply, ensure grid reliability and help families and businesses stay out of the red.

No matter how many supply-side resources we pour into the mix, the perfect blend will elude us until we stop treating demand-side flexibility as a final flourish of glitter.

In fact, it is more like the primer — often unseen but foundational to reliability, managing price volatility, enhancing grid performance, efficiently integrating renewables, facilitating newly electrified technologies and reducing cost. Flexibility adds adhesion and endurance to the core principles of energy policy.

Demand-side flexibility binds energy, climate and social objectives together.

graphic depicting how demand-side flexibility addresses reliability equity and sustainability of energy supply

Putting households in the frame

Demand-side flexibility means energy users changing how and when they use electricity in return for financial reward. They offer flexibility by drawing power from the grid at different times and by utilising energy efficiency, onsite generation and onsite storage, including electric vehicle batteries.

We need lots of flexibility and we need it now. The IEA estimates that, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a ten-fold increase of demand-side resources is required worldwide by 2030, compared with 2020 levels.

Industrial response receives most of the policy attention on the demand side, which is still only a fraction of that dedicated to supply-side resources. However, European Commission analysis concluded that the greatest potential for additional customer flexibility in 2030 actually lies within homes.

This is due to the, as yet untapped nature of this sector, plus projected electrification and digitalisation of buildings and vehicles. The proportions in the graph below are striking—even though the capacity levels themselves are likely to be a significant underestimate, given the fast-paced technology and market evolution since the 2016 study.

graphic depicting the theoretical potential in megawatts of demand-response capacity in selected European countries by 2030

Policy proposals

To take advantage of these untapped resources, there are three policy actions that should be enacted.

Firstly, make flexibility effortless and stress-free. Policymakers need to stop putting the onus on individuals to solve structural problems. People are busy; they have kids to get to school, shifts to work and boilers and cars that fail at the worst times. It is not their job to become energy market experts, it is the job of energy market experts to ensure that people make decisions — even unconscious ones — that boost flexibility and reduce energy bills.

There should be an EU-wide “mandate for smartness,” requiring products and buildings to be electrified and “flex-ready,” with clear labelling and high-quality customer support. Deployment schemes are urgently required, including subsidies to fast-track uptake and drive down future costs, replicating the success of renewables.

The regulators’ role is to ensure digital inclusivity of marginalised and vulnerable groups and to adapt customer protection rules so they keep up with new retail offers, without picking winners or stifling innovation.

Secondly, allow wholesale pricing to reflect the true value of flexibility. To uncover the value of flexibility and reveal its full potential, wholesale electricity prices should reflect real-time conditions on the power system.

Interventions such as price caps mask the increased costs caused by inflexibility, reducing incentives for efficient actions. Households should be rewarded to increase demand when there is a surplus of renewable generation, for example, but measures like minimum price guarantees prevent payment via the wholesale market.

Safeguards such as supplier hedging, price relief mechanisms for extreme events and targeted support for low-income customers become increasingly important. The baseline, however, should be wholesale pricing and smart network tariffs that reward flexibility in a fair and non-discriminatory way. This creates a positive feedback loop of households embracing flexible assets and seeing tangible benefits, which further incentivises flexibility.

Finally, develop robust metrics for flexibility. Europe lacks a common methodology for assessing and quantifying the multi-faceted benefits of customer flexibility.

Unless we make this value visible and measure it consistently and fairly, we cannot reliably assess flexibility potential or design mechanisms to unlock it. Developing robust metrics supports policies that can accelerate flexibility deployment such as targets, trading platforms and obligations on suppliers to procure demand-side capacity. Standardisation also enables progress to be tracked across Member States.

To create a masterpiece, start with a masterplan

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas

Flexibility is a system resource, activating it requires systems thinking. That does not mean treating households like mindless cogs in the machine — a new social contract must be crafted for the age of automation, upheld by equity, agency and opportunity.

Europe’s policymakers should take in the whole picture, rooting out market distortions, barriers to access and bad practices, while proactively showcasing and replicating positive examples of household flexibility, beyond pilot schemes.

If the artwork La Fée Électricité were recreated in the year 2035, what would we see? The fresco could show millions of homes, interacting seamlessly with the power system, for the benefit of people and planet alike.

One thing is certain, we are going to need a bigger wall.

 

A version of this article originally appeared on Foresight Climate & Energy.

Photo: Guillaume Baviere via Flickr Creative Commons

Owning the future: A framework of regulations for decarbonising owner-occupied homes in Scotland

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Scotland’s recent Heat in Buildings Strategy sets out a plan to achieve the ambitious target for all Scottish buildings to be decarbonised by 2045. In practice this means replacing the heating systems of nearly 90% of Scotland’s 2.5 million homes that are currently heated with fossil fuels. As part of its regulatory framework, the Strategy states that all homes should achieve a minimum energy performance, defined as Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) C, by 2033. And all fossil fuel boilers will be phased out beginning in 2025. In short, there’s a lot to do over the next 20 years.

In Owning the future: A framework of regulations for decarbonising owner-occupied homes in Scotland, authors Dr. Catrin Maby and Louise Sunderland take a deep dive into the Strategy, focusing specifically on the owner-occupied building stock. The proposals in this report aim to identify and fill gaps in the framework of regulations, as well as ensure that implementation is well timed and staged so that fabric improvements are completed before heating systems are changed. The proposals also take into account different building types and the need to decarbonise higher carbon fuels first. Regulations alone, however, do not guarantee successful renovations, so the report outlines essential funding, finance, practical support and safeguards for affordability that must come alongside.

The authors put forth a number of recommendations on how to best strengthen the Strategy. Although specifically designed for Scotland, these recommendations may be applicable to any government designing an efficient, effective and fair regulatory framework:

  • Remove uncertainty on the decarbonisation options for buildings to ensure all actions are no regrets
  • Enable effective standards through changes to EPCs and the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP)
  • Introduce a fabric energy efficiency standard to enable efficient, flexible heating
  • Phase out fossil fuels for heating through early incentives, and regulatory triggers and backstops
  • Enable alternative compliance routes for more complex, multi-occupancy buildings
  • Utilise existing compliance structures and resource local authorities to enable and enforce

You can find the report’s executive summary here.

EU can stop Russian gas imports by 2025

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The Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine puts into sharp contrast the deep entanglement between energy, security and geopolitics. Now more than ever, the European Union needs unity and resolve in its response and a focus on resilience in the face of interlinking crises.

Authors from Ember, E3G, Bellona and RAP have collaborated to identify the indispensable role clean energy solutions play in rapidly ending the EU’s reliance on fossil gas imports from Russia.

Key findings of our analysis:

  • Clean energy and energy efficiency can replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports by 2025. Europe can cut Russian gas imports by 66% by delivering the EU’s Fit for 55 package and accelerating the deployment of renewable electricity, energy efficiency and electrification. This is equivalent to a total reduction by 101 billion cubic meters. An urgent uplift in policy is now required to achieve the necessary level of implementation.
  • New gas import infrastructure is not required. Security of supply and reduction of Russian gas dependence does not require the construction of new EU gas import infrastructure such as liquified natural gas terminals. Alternatively sourcing 51 billion cubic meters of gas imports via existing assets is sufficient.
  • Coal power does not need to be extended. The above measures would enable the EU to achieve the necessary decrease in fossil gas demand without slowing the decline of coal-fired electricity generation.

To achieve urgent reductions in the use of fossil gas in Europe, it is important for decision-makers to identify and tackle counterproductive policies. The authors recommend 10 key measures to realise the additional potential for reducing gas use identified in this analysis:

  • Increase ambition and fast track adoption of the “Fit for 55” package. This is relevant in particular for the Renewables Directive, Energy Efficiency Directive, Emissions Trading System and the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive.
  • Clarify financial resources to support clean energy solutions. Ensure that allocated funding under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility is used to that effect. Establish a facility for early, front-loaded release of Multiannual Financial Framework funds where the delivery of gas savings can be accelerated.
  • Make energy efficiency an energy security priority and scale action. Energy efficiency has the largest potential to reduce cost impacts on consumers. Consider opening existing funding resources such as the Connecting Europe Facility for scaling national energy efficiency programmes.
  • Remove any incentives that currently deepen or perpetuate gas consumption. Examples include financial support for gas heating systems and special tax regimes or exemptions for industry. Replace them with investment support for clean heating, in particular for low- and middle-income families. Innovative schemes such as on-bill financing, tax credits or heating appliance lease schemes should be supported.
  • Support the rollout of renewables and heat pumps. Establish concrete investment programmes, reduce administrative burdens and accelerate support for critical enablers such as grid infrastructure, demand-side flexibility and better use of transmission networks and storage. Integrated regional markets can buffer fluctuating renewable resources across larger regions.
  • Make low-carbon supply chains an energy security priority. A skilled workforce and input materials to the low-carbon supply chain are critical to delivering this vision. The EU can enhance and scale Member States’ efforts and can establish a cooperative approach with the United States and other partners on scaling supply chains.
  • Ensure equity in the energy response. Governments must ensure the costs and benefits of the transition are shared fairly among consumers. Increased carbon revenues or windfall profit taxes can be earmarked for investments in renewables and efficiency, as well as bill support for vulnerable customers. Enabling access to energy services can unlock bill savings for low-income families. Regulators should address energy poverty by designing fair network tariffs and ensuring suppliers of last resort are properly financed.
  • Put in place a European Commission task force. This could drive and monitor a whole economy approach so that supply chain bottlenecks can be anticipated and efforts streamlined across different parts of the Commission.
  • Conduct analysis to identify latent potential that can be fast tracked. In particular, analysis should be identified for industrial end use of gas, or inefficiencies in gas use (transformation losses, methane leakage) to line up even higher gas savings post 2025.
  • Avoid gas infrastructure or contractual gas lock-in. The “substitution” effect from Russian gas to other sources is expected to decline sharply after 2025, meaning that additional import or other gas infrastructure will face rapidly declining utilisation.