How much does industry pay for electricity? Where did Europe’s gas come from last year? How many power plants does Europe have? Which transmission lines are most congested? How fast are wind and solar energy being added into the system?
It’s not easy to find a clear answer to these questions, partly because some public statistics remain inaccessible or hard to work with, and partly because simpler and more up-to-date data is only available commercially. This is especially true for energy and emissions prices, but is also the case for data on demand from some consumer groups or regional generation.
No problem, one might think. This has always been the case and public data availability has actually improved in recent years. But it is a problem.
The energy transformation required to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 will massive. Transport, heat and industry must be converted very quickly to emission-free energy sources. Identifying the right mix of solutions is controversial. Should electricity consumers move to where the wind turbines are, wind turbines to where the consumption is, or should the electricity be transported? How should the costs be shared among the various consumers? These are not only technical-economic questions; above all they are political. The availability of reliable and consistent data thus represents a basic foundation to underpin major political choices on energy. Without good data, Europe’s energy transition will be harder to achieve.
The problem is not so much that public authorities, companies, research institutions and associations do not provide data, but that they produce an inconsistent patchwork of only partly documented data points, which they upload in their own formats and onto their own platforms. This creates unnecessarily high barriers to entry for a meaningful discussion of energy policy measures, meaning many stakeholders cannot participate.
Very commendable initiatives from academia, non-governmental organisations and associations have lowered the barriers to data access in some areas, sometimes with very impressive online tools. But this must only be an intermediate step towards a public knowledge infrastructure that provides consistent and relevant energy data. Good data and publicly-available information are needed to assess the impact of planned policies, to evaluate current frameworks, to plan infrastructure, to assess national and regional plans and to identify priorities. Without good public data, stakeholders find it much easier to lobby for suboptimal approaches.
Since so much is at stake for so many in the energy transition, a public body that is as independent as possible should be given responsibility for the knowledge infrastructure. And since the question of what data is collected and how it is processed and presented is already political, a structure is needed that gives everyone the opportunity to suggest improvements. Without this, there will be neither the basis for the necessary public planning nor for the private investments that serve the system.
A new European Energy Agency could perform this task. It could mirror the European Environment Agency and its mandate to deliver knowledge and data to support Europe's environment and climate goals. Alternatively, this task could be performed by the creation of a dedicated organisation within Eurostat. One way or another, such a body is required urgently to inform and guide Europe’s transition to net-zero in a transparent, consistent and authoritative way.
This first glance is based on a corresponding piece published in Nature, which you can read here.