How European Union countries will address the problems posed by climate change is at the core of a debate that affects politicians, experts, scientists, trade unionists and activists.

To achieve the targets the EU set for 2020 (an overall target of 20% green energy) and then for 2050 (a full decarbonisation), it is necessary to take concrete steps and follow a specific process. This process is not shared by all the actors in the societies, and this is understandable.

Grids have a special role in that process towards renewable energy. Tens of thousands of kilometres of overhead, underground and subsea lines need to be added to the existing networks if EU wants to meet its energy and climate goals.

Are the members states infrastructures ready for this? Are societies positively prepared?

In an interview with European Interest Antonella Battaglini, CEO of the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI), which is a unique case of cooperation between NGOs and national power network operators, explains the role of grids towards EU climate and energy targets of 2020. She explains why RGI proposes as an alternative the decentralised electricity system.

Battaglini believes that public support is necessary for the implementation of renewables. “We therefore need to complement energy policies with social policies to make sure that we as a society take care of those who feel threatened by the ongoing changes,” she said.

European Interest: The EU has set itself an overall target of 20% green energy by 2020. Single countries must boost their overall use of renewable energy according to EU deals on emissions curbs. But how many EU member states have infrastructures ready for this?

Antonella Battaglini: The 2020 targets are a first important, but minor step, towards full decarbonisation. We have committed to more ambitious and challenging targets. Energy infrastructure and electricity grids are essential developments to be able to reach the energy and climate targets of 2020 and beyond.

However, building infrastructure is difficult, electricity grids in particular may take several years and sometimes decades before they can be built. It is therefore important to have a long-term projection all the way to 2050 when our economies will need to be fully decarbonised.

Without the deployment of urgently needed upgrades and new capacity, it will not be possible to further grow renewable energy sources even if most of the member states may reach the 2020 targets

These long-term targets are essential with regard to developing solid plans, designing supporting policies and developing markets to sustain new business models. Europe is doing all of it, maybe not fast enough, but the direction is clear.

Implementation on the ground varies because realities are very different. Without the deployment of urgently needed upgrades and new capacity, it will not be possible to further grow renewable energy sources even if most of the member states may reach the 2020 targets.

As we have seen in Germany and in other countries, lack of grid capacity leads to a slowdown of investments in solar and wind.

Today, grid operators such as 50Hertz in North-East Germany, EirGrid in Ireland and Terna in Italy, to name a few, see shares of 60-70% renewables in the electricity consumption of their control areas on many consecutive days.

They are developing new solutions to enable larger shares of renewable energy sources in the system, but we also urgently need more grid capacity as well as stronger commitment to innovation, for example in harvesting distributed resources, in order to achieve shares of renewable energy well above 80%.

You are the founder of the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI), which is a rather unique case of cooperation between NGOs and transmission system operators (TSOs). Since we are accustomed to seeing the two as different and with opposing goals, how do you make them work together?

We founded RGI in 2009, so this year we are going to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Few could imagine that this collaboration would work when we started. Today, we remain a unique alliance, since what brought the two groups together in 2009 is still valid today. NGOs want to see a future which is 100% renewable to prevent climate change, protect the environment and the livelihood of millions of people.

The TSOs have the mandate and increasingly also the ambitions to fulfil a societal need for energy security, sustainability and climate change mitigation. What seemed to be completely absurd in 2009, former opponents working together, is a clear must today. The need for collaborative efforts is present now more than ever. The challenges and opportunities of the energy transition cannot be solved by one actor only. Once you acknowledge this, everything becomes possible, albeit not easy.

The sectors of oil and coal employ hundreds of thousands of Europeans. It is obvious that they fear losing their jobs to renewables during the transitional process. In a recent interview, you said public support is necessary for the implementation of renewables. How do you think this problem can be overcome?

Coal and gas form the foundation of our Western societies, the way we know it today, with all its benefits, but also its negative aspects. It’s clear is that we would not have reached this level of development without the coal revolution. We should never forget that those who have worked in this sector deserve our respect and our thanks. Despite that, we need to change, we cannot continue without reacting to the damage and destruction that climate change will bring to our livelihoods and economies at large.

Of course, people are afraid, but being afraid does not reduce the necessity to act. We therefore need to complement energy policies with social policies to make sure that we as a society take care of those who feel threatened by the ongoing changes. This is what we mean when we talk about a fair transition. But a transition must happen, delaying it will only make it more costly and, ultimately, we will all lose.

A part of the understandable opposition from those who are dependent on traditional sources of energy, it seems that there is opposition to the grids by other parts of the society. If I understood correctly, RGI proposes as an alternative the decentralised electricity system. What exactly does the decentralisation concept offers?

If we indeed believe that the power sector will be largely based on renewable energy sources, then we need to also acknowledge that we will need to access all renewable resources independent from their location and size. A better utilisation of distributed resources will also contribute to reducing grid congestion and, in some cases, the need for grid expansion, provided that decentralised flexibility options are available. Distributed resources are changing the electricity landscape.

Today, we do not yet have the means to make full use of them, but new market products and approaches to system operation will emerge while we increase the share of renewables. This will also change the role of consumers. Prosumers will become more dominant, but how these prosumers will behave and act in the European electricity market is still to be determined. We should not believe that we can afford to wait for these developments to happen and avoid building the necessary grids today. We need to do many different things all in parallel.

new market products and approaches to system operation will emerge while we increase the share of renewables. This will also change the role of consumers. Prosumers will become more dominant, but how these prosumers will behave and act in the European electricity market is still to be determined

The EU offers financial support for the development of the renewable sector. Are you satisfied with this so far? Do you expect more from the EU on matters of finance and legislation?

Financial and policy support mechanisms for the renewable sector have been essential to reduce the costs of technologies and enable them to compete. But there is still more to do. Market barriers are still present, differences in risk assessment for technologies may also determine a higher cost of capital in the financial markets, thus de facto increasing the costs of renewables deployment. Apart from this, we need to look ahead and start supporting new technologies and business models that can increase and reward flexibility in the system. One of the main challenges we are going to face is the need to bridge periods in which there is not enough generation to satisfy demand. We have seen that there are weather patterns that, at continental base, can determine a lack of wind on a very large scale for consecutive weeks. We need to better understand these phenomena and invest in finding solutions. I generally always expect more, because I am fundamentally convinced that all of us can do better.