Renewable energy and trade: Now it’s all clear, Essent it? The ECJ in Vindkraft.

Post-script 28 August 2014: The ECJ will hold in Essent C-204/12 on 11 September

Updated 11 September: see here for review of judgment in Essent.

As reported, the ECJ last week held in Vindkraft. It did not follow the lead of Bot AG who had suggested inter alia that Directive 2009/28 itself  (which the ECJ has now found is not exhaustive on the issue of territorial restrictions of support schemes, hence requiring assessment under primary EU law) is contrary to EU primary law in allowing Member States to discriminate against foreign produced renewable electricity by limiting access to their national support scheme to electricity generated on their territory; and that such illegality is not backed by the environmental exceptions to the Treaty. I had suggested at the time of the AG issuing his Opinion in the related case of Essent, that there is in my view merit in the argument that the relevant Union laws require Member States to roll-out their own, national renewable energy capabilities, and that systems such as the Flemish one (in Essent) or Swedish one (Vindkraft) may be required to support industry to work towards that goal.

The ECJ agrees. Member States can continue to restrict access to their support schemes (in the strict sense of not rolling out financing to renewable energy of foreign origin): this constitutes an infringement to the free movement of goods but one which can be justified. In Preussen Elektra the ECJ had allowed the German scheme despite it being discriminatory. This might have been an implicit reversal of the case-law that infringements of the free movement of goods may only be based on the court-invented ‘mandatory requirements’ (of which environmental protection is one; as opposed to those societal interests which are included in the explicit list of exceptions of Article 36 TFEU) where they do not discriminate. (Not, such as is the case here, where they undoubtedly discriminate). That it might have been such reversal  had led the AG to suggest, finding support in the integration principle, that the Court in Essent should make that reversal explicit. In the end the Court decided Vindkraft before Essent (which is still pending) and simply refers (at 80) to its Preussen Elektra case law: no explicit reversal.

That is unfortunate for we are now left to ponder whether Preussen Elektra /Vindkraft (probably also Essent?) needs distinguishing (making reneable energy /Kyoto /UNFCCC commitments stand out from other environmental requirements)?

The Court instead focusses on proportionality. In that assessment, as pointed out by Catherine Banet, the ECJ emphasises the market-based elements of the Swedish scheme (the certificates can be sold separately from the underlying electricity and the market is operated in a transparent and liquid fashion): a less market-oriented approach may not have survived ECJ scrutiny.

Deciding Vindkraft together with Essent would have been helpful. Instead, Essent still contains another angle: namely certificates of origin (as opposed to only green certificates. Green certificates are used by a Member State to show its meeting its obligations to produce a minimum amount of electricity from renewable sources. Certificates of origin allow an electricity distributor to prove that x amount of its electricity distributed, originates from renewable energy). The Flemish support scheme for renewable energy at issue in Essent, grants renewable energy certificates to producers of such energy only if they are located in the Flemish Region, and obliges electricity distributors to surrender a minimum amount of such certificates without being able to offer such certificates obtained in other EU Member States. Taking the lead of the Court in Vindkraft, the Flemish scheme looks more vulnerable to me.

In conclusion: no, it Essent yet clear.

Geert.

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