EU Feeling Less Ambitious About Renewable Energy Plan

Goal of 20 percent by 2020 shouldn't be mandatory, energy ministers say.

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - EU energy ministers watered down an ambitious plan to turn Europe into a low-carbon economy, saying Thursday that a target to generate 20 percent of all energy in 2020 from renewable sources should not be mandatory.

They also avoided a decision on how the EU should push ahead and open up the energy market, merely repeating the end goal that the electricity network should be ''independently run and adequately regulated,'' with guaranteed access to all energy providers.

But EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said she had laid out the findings of her antitrust report, saying the market was not working properly and new players needed access to energy suppliers, the network and to customers.

This is not happening, the Commission said, claiming large energy companies have too much control over markets, efforts to take the network out of the hands of former state monopolies were ''insufficient'' and national markets are not merging together.

''This state of affairs is undermining our shared objective of ensuring secure, affordable and sustainable energy supplies,'' she told ministers, warning that regulators would act on specific cases, raiding businesses in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and Austria last year.

''But the case-based approach of competition policy cannot open markets across all 27 member states,'' she said.

Her answer is for ''full ownership unbundling,'' which would split up energy companies that control infrastructure, power generation and supply. This would mean network operators would not discriminate between energy companies or decide not to invest in a network that would benefit rivals.

''Options that essentially amount to keeping the status quo will deliver neither competitive markets nor security of supply,'' she warned.

But ministers could not strike any decision at all, with only a small group backing Kroes' radical changes. France believes its system - where the network is owned by partly state-run Electricite de France SA - was a model for others because it already guarantees rivals' access to infrastructure, fixes producer prices and obliges investment in new capacity.

The ministers weakened the demand by the EU's executive arm for a 20 percent target for renewable energy, insisting that it should be voluntary although another target within that - making 10 percent of transport fuel come from energy crops or biofuels was confirmed at 10 percent.

However, that would contain wriggle room for small countries.

For some nations, the renewable goals do not represent major changes to what they are doing already. Germany and Spain are ahead of the curve, with windmills dotted across their landscape.

But Britain sees no need to invest heavily in renewables, countries like Poland prefer cheaper coal, while France insists that nuclear power - which generates most of its electricity - meets the EU's goals because it does not release carbon dioxide.

As Europeans grow more anxious about climate change, energy prices and future energy supply, the Commission is now asking governments to tell it which direction to go in. Thursday's talks pave the way for EU leaders to take decisions at a March summit that could tell the EU's executive arm to table the laws that will put changes into effect.

Two recent blackouts and growing worries over possible changes to weather patterns, higher energy prices and the reliability of oil and gas suppliers have made the EU's plan to try to solve energy woes more significant than ever.

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