Renewables cautious progress cast into question

Renewables have suddenly come into the spotlight in the Czech Republic thanks to statistics showing a rocketing upsurge in solar power and a new measure giving grants to households which switch to environmentally friendly heating. But there are questions whether renewables’ hesitant progress can continue without up front Green Party backing in government and changes to the current rules.

Green Party deputy president, member of parliament and European parliament candidate Kateřina Jacques got into deep trouble recently trying to explain how biomass could be used for household heating on a popular Czech Television talk show with Jan Kraus.

The performance of biomass challenged Jacques could perhaps be taken as a metaphor for renewable energy in the Czech Republic. In spite of all the publicity surrounding renewables and government support programmes it often appears baffling and still has really to take off.

The country negotiated a low target for electricity produced from renewables with the European Union but even this appears out of reach according to the Environment Ministry’s Jaroslav Pavlica. “Renewables in the Czech Republic are not going as well as was supposed in the past. The target for 2010, which was 8.0 percent of electricity for gross electricity consumption in the Czech Republic will not be fulfilled.”

Last year, renewables accounted for just 5.18 percent of that consumption target. The figure has advanced less than one percentage point since the country introduced generous guaranteed long term tariffs for electricity produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar power and biomass in 2005. That bid to kick start the sector virtually guarantees prices for power producers for 20, and in some cases 30, years.

Czech Republic Friends of the Earth campaigner Vojtěch Kotecký says the law itself is not to blame. “The Czech Republic is one of the European laggards in renewable energy even though we have got one of the most progressive renewable laws in Europe. The reason is that the legislation came too late. It was enacted in 2005 and it has not had a major effect yet.”

Across the renewables board, the picture is mixed. Wind power experienced record growth in 2008 but that promise has not continued this year. Part of the problem is that many regional authorities are still trying to block projects because they see them more as a blot on the landscape than an advantage to the local economy. The central region of Vysočina - coveted by companies because of its wind power potential - has introduced new landscape rules which wind companies say will have precisely this blocking effect. The Ministry of Environment says it is currently powerless to intervene.

The number of solar power projects has rocketed by around a third since the start of the year to 1,623. The ministry of environment says this is largely because costs of installing equipment have fallen by around 40 percent.

Meanwhile, in capacity terms the growth of tailor made biomass plants is more or less stagnant with growth coming from more wood waste being burned in conventional power plants.

Along with the solar power figures last week, these was positive news that one of the Czech Republic’s biggest banks, Komerční Banka, is significantly boosting its team offering loans and hoping to plug into European grants for renewables development. The bank’s head of marketing for businesses and local authorities, Lucie Kudrnová, explains: “We see a big potential in this specific market and current responses from our clients confirms our expectations regarding huge interest regarding this kind of financing”

The bank says it is prepared to make loans covering up to around 80 percent of investment costs in renewables projects. So far its main interest has focused on hydro plants and biogas but it expects to branch out into solar and wind as well, if regional opposition wanes. The bank expects a significant advance in the tens of projects financed in the past.

For its part, the Ministry of Environment admits its incentives need some fine tuning with the current framework contributing to some annoying distortions. “It is necessary to use renewables in a more efficient way. It means choosing the appropriate source for the appropriate area. For example it is using photovoltaic on roofs rather than in green fields and using green fields for growing biomass,” added Pavlica.

Friends of the Earth’s Kotecký points out gaps in the current framework. “The problem is that the current legislation covers renewable electricity only and that we will need a similar law which will cover renewable heating which is solar panels for heating water in households or biomass heating plants for communities and similar projects.”

In the last month, the ministry of environment targeted part of a massive 10 billion crown grant – around 500 million dollar - programme for the promoting households to switch to solar panels, biomass and underground heating.

Praiseworthy as this first step is – and there is another 25 billion crowns to follow – Kotecký says that it is not enough. “The problem is that this is only the first step. We will need much more additional money for similar projects then we can make a major breakthrough. This programme will help something like 250,000 households, which is a great deal. We have not seen another similar programme in the Czech Republic since 1990. But still we have more than 4.0 million households in this country and we will need additional money to help all these others as well.”

He also points to a need to streamline the current planning rules which can mean that regions can effectively delay renewable projects for so long that the investors give up. In many cases across the country, projects favoured by local councils are being held up because they are opposed at the higher administrative level.

One major question is whether the changes called for by both the ministry and Mr Kotecký can be delivered if the Czech Green Party is no longer running the Ministry of Environment and no the major role in government it played under the outgoing three-way centre-right coalition.

Many aspects of the Czech energy policy are still up in the air. The outgoing government was due to decide an energy strategy for the next 30 years in the autumn. Options include opening up new coal reserves, more nuclear and more alternative energy. Elections in October are now likely to decide who and how that policy will be shaped with polls uncertain whether the Greens will even get back into parliament.

The Environment Ministry’s Jaroslav Pavlica says that renewables now have their own impetus irrespective of political comings and goings thanks to the long term state guarantees and longer term EU targets calling for renewables to account for 13 percent of energy consumption by 2020.

Friends of the Earth’s Kotecký argues that renewables are becoming mainstreamed politically. “It is very encouraging to see some signs of interest from other political parties in this area as well simply because Social Democrats and Conservatives are starting to see that cutting household fuel bills and cutting dependency on Russian gas and improving the efficiency of the Czech economy is very interesting for voters and will gain substantial support from voters.”

So, it would seem the main Czech parties could be stealing the Greens’ renewable clothing. But Mr Kotecký has one major proviso: that is the stance of the Czech electricity giant, ČEZ, which he credits with really running Czech energy policy. While ČEZ has taken a plunge into Czech renewable energy, it still has a lot more to gain and to lose at the moment from its coal and nuclear power operations.