What do people think about Norway as Europe’s “green battery”?

The politics of Norway’s energy supply is not something that many people often think a lot about. However, in recent months a discussion about whether Norway should increase its production of renewable energy, and extend more cables to neighbouring countries to become Europe’s “green battery”, has started. Here, I will try to discuss the issue of an increased power exchange with the rest of Europe, by looking at what average electricity users think about these questions.

But first, what is the idea behind the “green battery”? Well, Europe is rapidly increasing its adoption of renewable energy, with Denmark now being 40 % renewable, and Germany approaching 20 %. This is mostly good news, as this power replaces more polluting sources of electricity, or at least keeps some coal or gas plants from being built. However, renewable energy is less stable than fossil fuel energy, because it relies more directly on the current weather conditions. When it is windy, Spain can get two thirds of its power from wind turbines, but when it is not it needs to get power from somewhere else.

This is where Norway and the idea of a green battery come in. With its large supply of hydropower, which is stable, and can be turned on or off in a matter of minutes, Norway is an ideal candidate to act as a regulating instance in an electricity grid where renewables is an increasing part of the mix. It is also a potential source of income for Norwegian electricity companies and the Norwegian municipalities that mostly own these utilities, as well as the Norwegian state, which gets more tax revenue from it.

Because of its beneficial environmental effects, several environmental organisations, such as Zero and Bellona, strongly support the adoption of more renewables in the Norwegian energy mix. They are lobbying for increased power exchange with other European countries. Local governments in the south of Norway (link in Norwegian) have also voiced support for the scheme, wishing to benefit from increased exports.

Green controversy

As with most policy issues, there are some disadvantages to large-scale infrastructure projects like this, and this is reflected in the arguments of some of the opponents of the proposal. Norway’s Minister for Petroleum and Energy, Ola Borten Moe, is a vocal opponent of it (link in Norwegian). His reasoning is that the new renewables are heavily subsidized by the state and hence the Norwegian people, and that it would disproportionately benefit owners of power plants to export this electricity rather than use it for industrial production in Norway, or subsidized prices for electricity for the Norwegian public.

Similarly, not everyone in the environmentalist camp is excited by the large-scale construction of new renewable projects and the increase in the size and scope of the electricity grid. Organisations, such as Friends of the Earth Norway, are more concerned with conservation of pristine nature, and hence more interested in reducing energy demand than increasing supply. Many economists are also sceptical, although not for the same reason as Borten Moe. Rather, it is the existence of state subsidies themselves which is the problem. Why should taxpayers fund something that the market has deemed not profitable enough?  Also, since Europe has a market for CO2 emissions quotas, additional renewable energy production would only free up emissions quotas for polluting industry elsewhere in Europe, according to economist Michael Hoel (link in Norwegian).

What about “regular” people?

These kinds of policy discussions are usually dominated by people in the know, that is, people with a stake in the matter, or with specific expertise knowledge of the subject. However, as these are political issues, it affects a lot more people than the experts and politicians. Both renewables and cables take up a lot of space in local communities, and can both cost a lot and bring in sorely needed income, so there are good reasons to care about what non-specialists think about these issues.

The problem is that we actually know very little about the popular perception of the green battery. No one has asked people specifically about this question yet. However, we can get a picture of the issue by considering some related questions. First, we can look at how people in general view renewables. From research conducted at Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at NTNU, we know quite a lot about how people view renewables, as well as people’s attitudes towards increased political control of the production and distribution of electricity. Taken together, it can give an indication of what sort of issues people care about, and hence how they might position themselves in relation to a specific policy like the green battery idea.

Views on renewables

So what do people think of renewable energy in general? In the fall of 2011, 1033 people were asked in a survey about their opinions on specific renewable technologies. The answers are summed up in Figure 1. The answers, “very positive” and “somewhat positive”, have been merged into one category, and the same goes for the negative answers.

graf1

As we can see, people are generally overwhelmingly positive towards renewable energy. This is a finding we see repeated all over the world, and it is stable over time. Even though some renewable construction projects meet with local resistance, this is due to specific contextual matters; people maintain their general support for renewable energy. Simply judging from the support for renewables, we could think that people will support more renewables construction in Norway.

Policy views

However, the green battery issue is not just about being positive to new renewables. It is also a question of more traditional politics. One of the key controversies in the renewables policy discussion (as witnessed by the scuffle between economists and environmentalists linked to above), is to what extent government should intervene in the electricity markets and promote construction of energy installations that would not have been profitable without some sort of subsidies. We have some data on what people think the role of government should have as well.  The following figure shows the answer of 1500 respondents, in a survey conducted in the fall of 2009, on the role the government should have.  The answers “somewhat agree” and “strongly agree” have been merged into one “agree” category, and likewise for the “disagree” category. Have a look:

graf2

We see that most people support a more interventionist approach from politicians, with large support both for the claim that politicians are not promoting renewables enough, or investing enough in electricity production, as well as support for the idea that there should be more political control over these matters. Although the exact reasoning behind the answers can be hard to get at, I think it is plausible to assume that people see energy and electricity as so central to the functioning of society that they want a more tightly regulated sector.

The answers given here do not, however, support using the renewable energy for exporting abroad. Rather, more than half the people asked, think Norway already exports too much electricity. In fact, when asked about what they think about the price of electricity, 53 % agreed with the statement, “I think the price of electricity is too high” (16 % answered “neither/nor”, and 27 % disagreed). Both these answers point to the public agreeing with the Minister that any additional electricity built in Norway should be used to provide Norwegian electricity customers with cheap and abundant electricity rather than exporting it, and risking potentially high prices during cold winters.

It must be stated again, the answers are not direct answers to the question, “do you want a green battery type policy for Norway?, in such that  we cannot conclude that people are unequivocally against Norway as a green battery for Europe. Neither do these numbers mean that this policy should not be pursued – sometimes, politicians must make unpopular choices. But it cannot hurt to know more about what voters think about policies, can it?

photo by: ohefin