Energy Thinking at the World Sustainable Energy Days

While ministerial-level energy leaders from around the globe were in Washington, DC at WIREC last week, many of those who put national-level plans into action — or indeed lead by example and cajole their national governments to follow — traveled to Wels, Austria. Local and regional energy agencies, business representatives, architects and planners, and members of the global pellets industry, all found their interests catered for by the cluster of events that make up the World Sustainable Energy Days. Speakers and attendees came from nearly 70 countries, including the U.S. and China.

This ‘act locally’ event has brought surprising international renown to the small town of Wels, Upper Austria over the past decade, an initiative of the ever-inspiring Upper Austrian Energy Agency. By means of a cornucopia of activities and programs maintained over time, that group has helped home-owners and business reduce their energy consumption and install impressive amounts of renewable technologies (with considerable emphasis on heating), and has taken local biomass and solar industries from start-up status to international players.

This year, visitors to Wels learned that the region (a state with some political autonomy) had just signed a new law requiring that all new dwellings have solar thermal hot water installations and comply with the solar keymark standard (an industry quality standard). With approximately 30% of Europe’s energy attributed to the heating sector, renewable heating and cooling — always a focus in Wels — has massive potential to reduce Europe’s gas imports and carbon emissions. (Notably, there was no mention of heating or cooling over in Washington during U.S. President Bush’s address to the WIREC conference.)

The regular pellets conference also has a strong heating focus, but also covers wider issues of power generation and market growth, plus a wide range of technical matters — both on the pellets manufacturing side and their combustion. Other sessions saw debate among architects on implementation of sustainability in building codes, and a conference specifically on energy-efficient lighting.

Europe is now committed to meeting 20% of its total energy demand from renewables just 12 years from now. If energy consumption — particularly electricity consumption — continues to increase, then that challenge gets tougher year by year. During the Electricity Efficiency Conference Professor Reinhard Haas presented sobering (if not shocking) figures on Europe’s escalating electricity consumption, its curve far above the ‘business-as-usual’ projections from 1997. And this in spite of the increasing efficiency of many electrical appliances. We’re simply using more of them!

MEP Claude Turmes (in a video presentation) explained that every new plasma-screen TV is the load equivalent of an extra refrigerator. Both Haas and World Sustainable Energy Days organizer Christiane Egger demonstrated how stable the price of electricity has remained, in real terms, while incomes have risen throughout much of western Europe. The cost of power is no incentive to reduce its consumption.

And a comment from Egger to put it in perspective: “In many, if not most, households across Europe, people are now paying more for their communications — phone, mobile and internet — than they are for electricity.”

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