Thursday, 04 April 2024 14:04

Leonore Gewessler: We are on track

Caspian Energy (CE): How do you assess the results of COP28 that has recently been hosted in Dubai? Does a man have enough academic knowledge to manage the climate on the planet? What do Austrian scientists and power engineers think about this?

Leonore Gewessler, Federal Minister for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology of Austria:  The outcome of COP 28 marks an important next step in global climate action. In a difficult geopolitical context, countries were able to conclude the first Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement with strong forward-looking messages. This includes phasing out of fossil fuels, tripling renewables and doubling energy efficiency globally by 2030, with a view to achieving net-zero by 2050. We will need to follow up on all of these elements to keep 1.5 C within reach, but they mark a critical step forward for global climate action.

Many studies and model-based scenarios do make clear: It is technically possible to phase-out fossil fuel use over the next decades. Renewable energy sources and technologies are available and can cover our future energy needs. The more we move forward on energy efficiency, the easier this can be done.

CE: What is the share of fossil fuels and renewables in the energy mix of Austria? Can we talk about the competitiveness of the renewable energy industry? Why is nuclear energy called upon to be considered environmentally friendly after two large-scale accidents (Chernobyl and Fukushima) which caused huge environmental damage?

 Leonore Gewessler: We can provide the necessary safe, resilient, independent and renewable energy. We do not need dangerous and expensive nuclear power.

I know that many now want to expand their nuclear fleet. I think it’s the wrong way to go, because it’s too expensive, and to slow to make a contribution in a decade when decisive climate actions are needed. And there is still no solution for nuclear waste. Nuclear power generation may cause less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels, but there are other serious environmental issues and the high risk of public health impacts too and the full life-cycle is often forgotten as well. Uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel production, they all leave radiological and toxic substances such as fluorides, corrosive acids and tailings as legacies. The EU countries’ import dependency on uranium ores is almost 100 percent. And then there is the element of many things going wrong at the same time, which can always happen, resulting in massive catastrophes. Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown. It is not possible to exclude severe nuclear accidents. The enormous risk potential of nuclear power plants in armed conflicts is becoming apparent in the war in Ukraine. The use of nuclear power burdens future generations irresponsibly with radioactive waste - to date there is still no final disposal facility in operation.

Anyway, the share of fossil fuels today is still much too high, but renewable energy production is growing faster than even the IEA expected. In Austria it is reaching 31.7 percent of total final energy consumption in 2022, and around 80 percent of total final electricity consumption. Since 2005, there has been substantial growth in this area, particularly in the fields of wind and photovoltaics. We have also recognised the potential of geothermal energy, but projects there take longer than a couple of weeks.

For these reasons, we are building the energy transition without nuclear power, focussing instead on electrification, energy efficiency, secure renewable energy, reliable storage and well-developed grids. 

CE: What steps are currently taken to pave the way towards energy autarky and ensure sustainable economic growth by green jobs in Austria?

 Leonore Gewessler: We adopted a very important energy law – the renewable energy expansion act. We have a financing mechanism to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity of its total electricity consumption by 2030 (balanced view). We are on track. We are working on many fronts: but a centrepiece is the integrated grid infrastructure plan, a joint consideration of electricity, methane and future hydrogen networks.

We are seeing a solar boom in Austria. Oil and gas heating systems are being replaced by more climate friendly systems and buildings are being renovated. We have set up a transformation fund for industry to support energy-intensive industry in the transition. We are driving geothermal energy forward with the support of the Austrian Climate Fund and will put a lot of money in large and medium-sized electricity and heat storage facilities, so we will hopefully be launching many exciting projects in the new year. All of this is creating many interesting jobs in companies that operate regionally.

The energy transition is a sustainable and regional economic development programme with many benefits. We are less dependent on fossil fuel imports and create future-oriented jobs. Our Just Transition Action Plan on skills and qualification is the compass for implementation, because this transition has economic, social and labour market policy issues which require concrete measures to ensure the necessary qualification of the working people. That is why we invest in further education of skilled workers in the labour market, because the people who install the heat pumps instead of gas boilers need to have the technical knowledge.

CE: What are the latest innovations applied by Austria in the energy and environment sectors?

Leonore Gewessler: The Ministry of Climate Action invested about 172 Million Euro in innovative energy research projects just in 2022. The R&D budget is provided via different funding agencies offering a broad range of programmes and instruments and by direct funding of research facilities.  

Just to give you one example on how innovations “made in Austria” look like, I would like to highlight one project: The “AHEAD” research project was the national winner of the Net-Zero Industries award 2023 by Mission Innovation in the «Outstanding Projects» category. Under the leadership of the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, the biopharmaceutical company Takeda developed the first steam-generating heat pump for industrial operation that uses only natural refrigerants. This new heat pumping system is demonstrated at the Takeda site in Vienna. By implementing this new technology CO2 reduction of up to 90 percent can be achieved in pharmaceutical production. This corresponds to 1,900 tons of CO per year and is an important milestone on the way to achieve sustainability goals of operations and facilities in this sector.


Thank you for the interview


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