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30 January 2009

Open your mind to Open Software

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a forum entitled “Open Software on Public Administration" organized by the Portuguese Geographic Institute, the Portuguese Order of Engineers and the National Laboratory of Civil Engineering, taking place at the Laboratory's congress centre. It happens that I spend two days every week working at the Concrete Dams department of the Laboratory, and having the forum a high geographic content I couldn't miss it.

I have been using free/open source software in one form or another for more than ten years, and it now comprises the largest slice of applications I use. But at his forum I became conscious of something new: open source is not a computer geek curiosity any more, it is being used widely in many areas of engineering and natural sciences by folk without any sort of informatics background. A revolution may be on the brink.

This log entry is a simple list of applications that today permit doing pretty much what one expects to do with a computer, but all being open software. Starting with the basics, it is heavy on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, but also points to applications on other areas like education and management. At the end I leave a few notes on how to experiment these applications and environments without compromising your present system.

Start up

  • Ubuntu – well, first of all you need that application that runs when you press the “on" button, gets you in contact with the hardware and presents a pleasant and friendly graphical interface. Without disregarding other Linux distributions, Ubuntu is today possibly the easiest to install and use open source operating system, and it comes on a series of flavours to better fit your needs. More on this chapter later.

  • Thunderbird – ok, now you can interact nicely with your computer, but such machine is only fun when you can use it to interact with other people, so you may start by installing an e-mail client. My favourite is Thunderbird, easy to configure, effective in dealing with spam. Some folk have issues with disk space, but you can command it to use less.

  • Evolution - a suite integrating an e-mail client, address book and a calendar. Never tried it but it is getting famous and comes by default with Ubuntu Desktop. Since I'm pretty happy with Thunderbird I don't feel the need to try, but I should do it some day.

  • Sunbird - this is the Calendar I use, simple, no complications.

  • Pidgin - the open source chat client of the day. I quitted this sort of applications some time ago because they can be quite time consuming (ok, not the applications, all the folk at the other end of the line), but the outstanding number of networks Pidgin can connect to make it quite appealing. Also included with Ubuntu.

  • Google Chrome - but e-mail and instant messaging are just two of the ways with which you can connect to that knowledge monster called the internet, to take broader advantage of it you need a web browser. I strongly recommend Google Chrome; have been using it for a week and half and I'm already surrendered to it, everything's pretty clean and easy to use. This is, I think, the first open source application ever produced by this giant software house, they are starting well.

  • Firefox - well, there isn't much else to be said about it, the first open source application to reach serious market penetration, I used it for a long time until I found Chrome. It is also included with Ubuntu.

  • OpenOffice - but alas, some people actually use their computer to work. The first application connected to work most folk think about is the office suite. I started using OpenOffice with version 1.1 when the problems where probably more than the benefits, although by then Writer was already an acceptable application. With version 2 both Writer and Calc were already fully usable applications that I gladly embraced; at this time graphs at Calc were limited and I got the impression that Impress didn't really work. With version 3 graphs reached a very satisfactory level and I can now actually make my presentations with Impress; some difficulties persist with this last application but I wonder if they are now more on the user's side than at the application's. OpenOffice is also having another important impact by complying to the OpenDocument format it is freeing users from proprietary closed formats, that in the case of Public Administration is much more than a simple inconvenience. The full suite (including also Base, Draw and Math) is also included with the Ubuntu package.

Before moving on I must note here that a fresh Ubuntu installation contains all the applications needed by most folk. Even many engineers with whom I interact, don't go much beyond using a spreadsheet. Naturally there are applications and databases built ad hoc for the business/organization in question, but these invariably provide web based interfaces, for which a simple web browser is enough.

Data Base Management

  • PostgreSQL - the momentum this Data Base Management System (DBMS) is picking up is quite staggering, possibly getting stronger than what Firefox made in its hey day. At the forum we had Olivier Dorie from the French Geographic Institute presenting how on a several year project they managed to gather all of the country's topography on a single database managed by PostgreSQL (and its spacial component PostGIS) now comprising more than 100 million data entries. This is an example of the state of maturity PostgreSQL has reached. The case is so serious that proprietary DBMS vendors were forced to release light-weight free-of-charge versions of their products. Still, PostgreSQL remains a superior option for two reasons: it is open source and includes the spatial extension. I have been using PostgreSQL for some time, but only to keep a few personal databases, so far I'm pretty happy with it, although interacting with a DBMS without using a command line interface leaves me a bit nervous.

  • PG Admin - this is the secret being the success of PostgreSQL, a simple and friendly graphical management interface for this DBMS. It relieves the user of many technicalities in interacting with the “monster" a DBMS can be, making PostgreSQL useful from the tiniest personal database to the monolithic enterprise data warehouse.

  • Firebird - before knowing PostgreSQL I used this DBMS and recommended it to my database students, together with Squirrel (see following). It still is a system to consider (especially for high performance applications, although here you have to pay) but the inclusion of PostGIS with PostgreSQL pretty much obliterated it.

  • Squirrel - this is a fine graphical DBMS interface I used for a long time and also recommended it to my students. Up until 6 months ago it still wasn't able to present triggers associated views which is quite annoying and eventually made me trade it for PG Admin and Oracle's sqldeveloper. As a final note on databases, when I started teaching the databases course I immediately decided for open source software but was worried that my students (who didn't have any computer science background) would struggle with it; to help I made available on the internet a small document in Portuguese explaining the basic steps of installing Firebird and Squirrel on a Windows system. To my surprise not a single student had problems installing and running the software, my first real life example of free software reaching maturity.

Virtual Environment

  • GISVM - some time back Ricardo Pinho, a GIS guru, was facing a problem that you might be now experiencing: how to test all these new systems and applications without quitting the primary operating system? Fortunately, microprocessors since the Intel 80386 generation allow for the creation of virtual environments – something like a virtual computer running inside your computer. This feature never worked quite well until the latest generations of microprocessors, that physically include more than one processor in a single chip and since then software to create and run these environments proliferated. So Ricardo had the idea of creating such environment with a Linux operating system (Ubuntu) and complete it with a collection of GIS software for experimentation. He went on the web to search for similar things and found none, then decided to create a website making his virtual environment available for everyone and it became a success. This is an extremely useful tool, and since Ubuntu includes a paraphernalia of other free software it can be a simple way to get to know Linux and the open world in general.


  • QuantumGIS - possibly the most recognizable name in open source GIS, it evolved as a user friendly graphical interface for GRASS, an old open source GIS system from the command line times, becoming an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) . It provides a wide range of features to visualize, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps comprising a very complete package that is extensible by additional plug-ins.

  • gvSIG - this is a multilingual GIS that can handle both vector and raster data, including a variety of useful editing tools; it reads a wide range of different file formats and is prepared to use geo-spatial data stored at a database or at remote sources. This project is a little different from similar ones in that it is being developed by a private company (IVER Tecnologías) and the Juame I University of Castellón, under commission by the Government of the Valencian Community, employing monies from the European Regional Development Fund. The multilingual features allied with its interoperability with a wide range of file formats made it rapidly successful among open source communities outside Valencia, being now the GIS desktop application of choice for many folk in the field.

  • KOSMO - another open source desktop GIS developed in Spain and coded in Java. Light weight and with a clean graphical interface it is starting to get popular among some GIS operators.

  • uDig - a user friendly desktop GIS developed in Canada on the Eclipse Framework. It is extendible and can itself be used as an extension to other Eclipse based applications. Its easy of use (powered by Flash walk-throughs) is making it quite popular.

  • GeoServer - this application is one of several that forced the open source revolution on GIS software, providing a service that proprietary vendors neglected for a long time. GeoServer is a web server of maps and geo-spatial features, allowing the construction of web based applications that include geographic information. This field of application was ground-broken by MapServer some years ago, when commercial vendors struggled to provide a functional alternative. GeoServer is today the leading option in the field due to its superior performance.

  • OpenLayers - this is not exactly an application, but a code library that allows programmers to include map data in the web pages they develop. It is a tool that provides the client side support for the data served by applications like GeoServer.

Other end-specific software

  • Modellus - this is an educational software developed in Portugal for teaching Mathematics and Physics to high-school and college students. It provided for one of the funniest presentations at the forum: the speaker opened the program and chose a dinosaur cartoon figure among a list and dragged it to the centre of the screen – the subject – and then opened a small window called mathematical model and typed in x = t * 10 , then he clicked run and the dinosaur walked away out of the screen. Then he changed the model to x = t ^ 2 and the dinosaur disappeared on an accelerating run. Modellus has been adopted in many schools around the world and seems to be in the process of becoming mandatory for some curricula in the UK. This is indispensable software for anyone raising children, embodying a new teaching paradigm were children do not spend most of their time executing mechanical exercises anymore and spend more time actually understanding mathematics.

  • OpenProj - described by its developer institution “as a complete desktop replacement for Microsoft Project", has reached maturity and is used today by many engineering professionals.

  • QCAD - Computer Assisted Design (CAD) is an area where open source struggled to reach maturity. QCAD is part of a set of new applications set to change that, offering a workbench for two-dimensional design providing much of the functionality available in commercial software. For now three-dimensional design isn't possible, but what QCAD provides so far seems to be enough for many of the tasks engineers and architects do daily.

  • Octave - this is the open source version of numerical computation software like MathLab or Mathematica. It provides a command line interface for solving linear and non linear problems numerically, and for performing other numerical experiments using a language that is similar to that used by Matlab. It may also be used as a batch-oriented language.

  • Code_Aster - one of the most complex open source applications available, it was developed by EDF for finite element analysis and numeric simulation in structural mechanics and was made publicly available in 2001. Because it is employed by EDF in the Nuclear Industry most of its code has been subject to independent validation and benchmarking. It has been employed in many areas of engineering and a considerable community evolved around it.

  • AlFresco - is an open source Enterprise Content Manager (ECM) providing many features like Document Management, Collaboration, Records Management, Knowledge Management, Web Content Management and Imaging. Its modularity and interoperability with other systems and applications has granted it wide acceptance.

Many more applications exist in other or similar fields of usage; finding an open source application to perform a specific task is many times a matter of searching and rarely an open source package goes without alternative. This ends up being another advantage of open source software: its modularity, fitting closer to the users needs.


Most of the applications cites above run on commercial operating systems, but to free your self entirely from proprietary software you should use a free operating system. Many folk still think that to use open software (or at least operating system) they have to quit their current system overnight, recurring to the fatal format c: or fdisk. That's not the case and there are several ways to start using all these new programs while keeping your current base system:

  • Live CD - many Linux distributions provide an installation CD that runs the system from the CD itself, you reboot the PC with the CD and have a test run. As usually many applications are included with the operating system, it is also an easy way to get the first contact with them.

  • Dual boot - it is also possible to have two operating systems in the same computer, when installing a Linux distribution there's usually an option to install a boot program that allows to choose which operating system to run at start up. To have both systems installed one need either a free secondary hard drive or a chunk of free space on the primary hard drive into which the second system goes. This option is more for advanced users (even though it can be really easy if you have a free hard drive), but provides an experience closer to the real thing.

  • Virtual machine - this is the option provided by the GISVM package. There are a few software packages that allow you to build your own virtual environment fitting your needs. This option provides an environment close to real usage without any risk of compromising the main system.

After making certain that you are able to do all your work and other activities on an open source platform you are ready to migrate without pain to the world of free code.

Through time I have experimented several Linux distributions: Suse, Red Hat (now Fedora), Debian, Xandros, Mepis, Ubuntu, but most of the times I end up approaching it as a normal user and not on a technical perspective; after some time I just want it to function, providing a proper platform for my work. If you have a bit more of curiosity you should try more than one distribution and several graphical interfaces (like KDE, GNOME, Xfce) to find the one that suites your needs better. If you just want something that works and doesn't give you trouble setting up, simply go with Ubuntu.

It is possible that you run into some difficulty or another in your open source endeavours, but don't give up at the first try, remember the strongest advantage of these solutions: the Community. There are millions of folk using and developing open source software around the world, you will always be able to find a forum or mail list where you can ask for help or share your experience.

Final thoughts

My professional activity obliges me to use commercial software, so I need a commercial operating system in my computer. During the last few years I've tried to change my primary system into something open source, but there seemed to be always something missing for that change to unfold. Things started to change with Mepis and its easy of use; unfortunately it had some difficulties with the hardware of my laptop at the time. The first distribution that really became a platform I used for something more than programming was Ubuntu; I kept an installation with dual boot for a long time and was able to do a good chunk of my work with it. It had became my primary system if it wasn't for a single problem: I never managed to replicate the desktop to the video output, this had the annoying consequence of preventing me from using it in classes.

Right now I'm using Windows Vista as my primary system, it is less user friendly than XP but much more stable. I only use three commercial applications (imposed by work) and all the rest is open source. As parallel free platform I'm using GISVM. Although I'm pretty happy with the improvements Vista brought me these last months, this year won't end without me changing my primary system to open source, especially now that I'm not teaching any more. The commercial software will simply be stuffed into a virtual machine.

Open source software is gaining considerable momentum, reaching many fields of application and providing straightforward solutions for non-expert users. The present economic crisis will force many organizations to contemplate the hypothesis of abandoning commercial software. Instead of simply laying off personal, companies cutting costs by migrating to free applications might find that narrow competitive advantage that makes the difference from going down with the crisis or surviving it.

It seems to me that conditions are at the moment quite propitious for an en masse migration to open source software. Open your mind and ride the wave!

13 January 2009

SER-2 [02] Memo on the Security and Solidarity Action Plan

In the second instalment of this series analysing the Second Strategic Energy Review (SER-2) by the European Commission, the focus is on to the Memo entitled “EU Energy Security and Solidarity Action Plan”.

This Action Plan is one of the new concepts brought about by SER-2 and marks a visible turn of the Commission's understanding of the European Energy system. Whereas during the first years of its term the Commission relegated Energy Security to second plan, expecting it to magically emerge as consequence of the internal market liberalization and deregulation, now it takes a frontal role in the Commission's Energy Policy.

After a generic introduction squaring this Action Plan with the 20-20-20 agenda, the document immediately goes to admit (even if implicitly) the failure of the past focus on liberalization:

Energy security is an issue of common EU concern. With the integration of energy markets and infrastructures within the EU, specific national solutions are often insufficient. And while each Member State is in the first instance responsible for its own security, solidarity between Member States is a basic feature of EU membership. Strategies to share and spread risk, and to make the best use of the combined weight of the EU in world affairs can be more effective than dispersed national actions.

The Plan is divided in five action points, that are tackled separately.

1. Promoting infrastructure essential to the EU's energy needs.

The idea is to promote cross-border infrastructure allowing for a deeper market integration and broadening importing choices. This point of the Plan will be enhanced by the Third Internal Market Legislative Package which will facilitate investment in these infrastructures. It breaks down the following way:

  • Development of a Baltic interconnection plan, better linking the region with the rest of the EU,
    improving the security and diversity of its energy supply, enabling solidarity;

  • Development of a Southern Gas Corridor for supply from Caspian and Middle Eastern sources and possibly other countries in the longer term, improving security of supply;

  • As liquefied natural gas (LNG) is now contributing to diversity of gas supply, sufficient capacity should be available to all Member States, either directly or through other Member States on the basis of solidarity arrangements; particularly important for the Member States which are
    currently overwhelmingly dependent on a single gas supplier; an LNG Action Plan to be considered;

  • Completion of a Mediterranean energy ring, linking Europe with the Southern Mediterranean through electricity and gas interconnections to improve energy security and to help develop the vast solar and wind energy potential;

  • Development of North-South gas and electricity interconnections within Central and South-East Europe, building on the Energy Community inter alia, supporting the national energy regulators and Transmission System Operators;

  • Development of a blueprint for a North Sea offshore grid, interconnecting national electricity grids and plugging in planned offshore wind projects.

There is a clear concern in these lines with the dependence on Russian gas, that is hedged with a boost in LNG gasification and a direct link to the Middle East. Although increasing the gas importing paths to Europe will in principle increase security of supply, none of the proposed options seems to represent a real advantage over the link to Russia. While a corridor from the Middle East will have to pass by a series of countries to reach Europe, from Russia it has to pass one intermediary at most. As for LNG, it is unlikely that this market can have a serious impact in future EU requirements, especially when taking account that other countries are also expanding their gasification capacity, promising to fuel the market dispute during the following decade.

To close this point a question must be asked: why aren't the measures to foster alternative energy supplies at the head? Relegated to last spot, and with the shy option of a “blueprint”, the North Sea wind resource seems especially disregarded. There's no supply more secure than that coming within the EU's borders; while the dependence on foreign energy won't disappear any time soon, developing indigenous sources is the best way to reduce it.

2. A greater focus on energy in the EU's international relations.

The EU needs to intensify its efforts in developing an effective external energy policy; speaking with one voice, identifying infrastructure of major importance to its energy security and then ensuring its construction, and acting coherently to deepen its partnerships with key energy suppliers, transit countries and consumers. The Commission will identify the concrete mechanisms necessary for ensuring transparency between Member States and the EU, so that a common message can be constructed.

Relations with Norway are to be strengthen within the framework set by the European Economic Area. Negotiations are under way for Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey to enter the Energy Community. In the case of Ukraine it will be interesting to know how the recent row with Russian gas transit will influence the process. It is important to note also that Georgia (presently an observer country of the Energy Community) isn't mentioned, qui sas a consequence of last August's coup de théâtre.

As for farther away producers new agreements will be seek with major energy suppliers: Russia and Caspian countries, in order to match the EU's need for security of supply with these partners' need for security of demand. The memo also calls for a proper assessment of Africa's role in the Union's energy needs.

This section ends with a brief reference to the EU-OPEC Energy Dialogue and the need to cooperate with energy importing nations in order to achieve a “global climate deal”. How this last issue can deal with security of supply is hard to envision.

While the tactics used to spread the EU's regional economic sphere of influence might be an effective way of turning around the lack of coherence of the Union's foreign policy, on larger chessboards things won't go as easily. It is quite possible that a consensus on a common foreign policy towards energy will be easier to obtain than on geo-politic issues, but nonetheless, the EU will likely benefit from having some sort of foreign affairs office (preferably transparently elected) as a de facto external representative of these common interests, displaying for the outside world a clear, strong and unambiguous vision on energy.

3. Improved oil and gas stocks and crisis response mechanisms.

The Commission proposes a revision in the EU's strategic oil stocks legislation, improving coherence with the International Energy Agency regime, reliability and transparency on available stocks and clarifying emergency procedures. To improve oil market transparency, the Commission proposes that the EU publish weekly, on an aggregated basis, the level of commercial oil stocks held by EU oil companies.

Quite welcome. To bad oil had to reach 147 dollars per barrel for something like this to happen.

The Commission, after its evaluation of the Directive on Security of Gas Supply concludes that greater harmonisation of security of supply standards and predefined emergency measures at regional and EU levels are needed. The threshold for triggering EU action should be reconsidered and compensation arrangements should be clarified. The Commission considers that there is insufficient evidence at this stage for making strategic gas stocks obligatory. A revision of the Directive on Security of Gas Supply2 may be tabled in 2010.

The Commission will change this assessment shortly. The EU possibly needs some sort of counterpart to the US Department of Energy's EIA, to congregates stocks information at an European scope, so that problems as those identified by Rune Likvern won't go unnoticed to the wider public again (on this specific issue it still remains to be seen how Ireland will be impacted by the lack of storage capacity in Britain).

4. A new impetus on energy efficiency.

The 2006 Energy Efficiency Action Plan will be evaluated in 2009. In the meantime, a 2008 Energy Efficiency Package is being tabled, focused on improvements in the legislation on the energy performance of buildings and on energy labelling as well as intensification of the implementation of ecodesign and cogeneration Directives. These are all areas in which energy efficiency improvements can be achieved, with substantial impact on Europe's energy consumption and energy security. A new Sustainable Energy Financing Initiative is being prepared jointly with European Investment Bank and other financial organisations, to mobilise large-scale funding from capital markets for investments in energy efficiency as well as renewable energies, clean use of fossil fuels and combined heat and power from renewables in Europe's cities.

Several points amalgamated into one paragraph make little of the most important energy policy of any importing nation: Efficiency. This is the one point that has an impact on any chapter of energy policy, be it climate concern, depletion or security of supply. As to the later, addressing the demand side of the equation is certainly an indispensable way of guaranteeing that suppliers can cope with the EU's demand.

Closing this point, it is especially worrying to see the words “clean use of fossil fuels” in a section dedicated to Energy Efficiency.

5. Making better use of the EU’s indigenous energy reserves.

Indigenous production currently provides 46% of the energy used in Europe
. The EU's greatest potential source of indigenous energy is renewable energy. Today it accounts for about 9% of final EU energy consumption and the agreement is to raise this to 20% by 2020. Technology is crucial in developing and using our resources in a cost-effective and environmentally-sustainable way so our next step in the Strategic Energy Technology Plan will be a Communication on Financing Low Carbon Technologies. This will propose ways to support large scale demonstrations at EU level, including up to twelve Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) demonstration plants. Europe's aim to have up to twelve commercial scale demonstration plants in operation by 2015 and the G8 commitment to launch twenty demonstration plants globally by 2020 will require greater incentives than currently available. Use of coal in the longer run is only compatible with climate challenge if highly-efficient plants predominate and CCS is widely available. The Berlin Fossil Fuel Forum will look at which additional measures could be taken at Community and national level, and in partnership with Norway, to promote cost-effective and environmentally-compatible access to indigenous EU fossil fuels.

Reading “indigenous energy reserves” one would expect a few lines on Wind, Solar, Hydro-electric and other renewable energies. In fact the second sentence acknowledges these as the energy sources with greater potential, but it all ends up with blatant promotion of CCS. Startling.

Even if technical data existed to confirm the cryptic claim that “coal isn't compatible with climate change”, CCS would continue to be a terrible option, for the efficiency penalty it implies. Given that half of the coal used in the Union is imported, a much effective way to reduce its usage would be to simply cap import volumes or introduce extra tariffs on them. The promotion of this sort of tactics makes absolute no sense in the context European Energy policy and much less within a document dedicated to Security of Supply and Solidarity.

Point five ends with a important, if short, reference to Nuclear energy:

It is for each Member State to choose whether or not to invest in nuclear energy. However, the nuclear safety and security framework applied everywhere in the EU is of common interest. A common legislative framework on the safety of nuclear installations and the management of nuclear waste is needed. The Commission is tabling a revised proposal for a Directive on nuclear safety.

This measure echoes an important concern referenced in one of the Nuclear energy discussions at The Oil Drum, that managed to avoid the traditional pro/against stance on the issue. At this moment this seems a plausible way for the Commission to follow. Still, being the European community as old as Nuclear Energy (actually EUROATOM was one of the first European institutions) it seems extremely odd why it took 50 years for the work on common legislation on the subject to start. In the future, as it becomes clear that natural gas is finite, a clear European Nuclear Energy Policy will likely have to take shape.

The memo terminates with a look forward:

Towards a vision for 2050

The EU’s agenda for 2020 has set out the essential first steps in the transition to a high-efficiency, low-carbon energy system. The EU needs to develop a vision for 2050 and a policy agenda for 2030. The fundamental technological shifts involved in decarbonising the EU electricity supply, ending oil dependence in transport, low energy and positive power buildings, a smart interconnected electricity network will only happen with a coordinated agenda for research and technological development, regulation, investment and infrastructure development. In addition, the transition to a high-efficiency, low-carbon energy system needs to be promoted not only in Europe but worldwide. The Commission will prepare in the framework of the Strategic Energy Technology Plan a Roadmap towards a 2050 Energy Policy, in dialogue with Member State officials, academics and industry experts.

Of important note in this final paragraph is the vision of a transport infrastructure not dependent on oil; unfortunately this is left for a later date, for now EU citizens have to content themselves with the agro-fuel pipe dream. This shows the underlying optimism of the Commission towards future fossil fuel availability, that sadly remains as a common denominator to its Energy Policy.

A objective critic on the whole document isn't easy. How much of it will be translated into legislation? How much will be impossible to achieve by lack of executive powers? How much is simple rhetoric? On the whole the document seems to identify correctly important problems and presents a broad choice of measures to deal with them. On the down side is a lack of focus on efficiency and renewable energy (the 20% target by 2020 might not even be enough to replace internal gas depletion). Promoting CCS in this scope is inexplicable, being a stain that seriously compromises the credibility of the Action Plan.

07 January 2009

SER-2 [01] Introduction

The European Commission has published the Second Energy Review (SER-2) this last November. Entitled “Securing our Energy Future”, it was made available during the same week the IEA's World Energy Outlook was released, which stole much of the impact it could have had and delayed serious insight up to now.

This Strategy attempts to set a Course of Action towards three main Goals:

  • Sustainability

  • Competitiveness

  • Security of Supply

This log entry is the first of a series that will try to build a critic but constructive review of this crucial element of future Energy Policy in Europe.

SER-2 is a set of ten documents of different scopes and purposes. They are gathered at the Strategy's web page, where a plethora of other supportive documents can also be found. The amount of information gathered at this web page is quite considerable, making it a very useful resource, something that by itself is already a positive result of the effort put on this Strategy.

The first document to be review is the press release that serves as a sort of Executive Summary to the full Strategy.

Securing your energy future: Commission presents energy security, solidarity and efficiency proposals

“Securing your” is an unfortunate way of starting, the implied gap between policy makers or technocrats and commons citizens is in strike contrast to what the EU should aim to be. In any event this is just a detail, but inusitate.

The opening paragraph contains a few key ideas and shows up front the main areas of action:

The European Commission has proposed today a wide-ranging energy package which gives a new boost to energy security in Europe, supporting the 20-20-20 climate change proposals which should be agreed by December. The Commission puts forward a new strategy to build up energy solidarity among Member States and a new policy on energy networks to stimulate investment in more efficient, low-carbon energy networks. The Commission proposes a new EU Energy Security and Solidarity Action Plan which sets out five areas where more action is needed to secure sustainable energy supplies. The Commission also looks at the challenges that Europe will face between 2020 and 2050. In addition, a package of energy efficiency proposals aims to make energy savings in key areas, such as reinforcing energy efficiency legislation on buildings and energy-using products, and enhancing the role of energy performance certificates as well as inspection reports for heating and air-conditioning systems.

SER-2 comes to be as giving the flesh to the bones set out by the 20-20-20 agenda. But it is clear that the Strategy's scope is going beyond Climate concerns. “Security and Solidarity” sounds exceptionally well; conceptually, member states should be able to edge menaces to foreign energy supplies better by cooperating among each other. Some expectation builds up on knowing what exactly this plan is. Of positive note are also the intent to look into the long term and the focus on Efficiency, a chapter where the Commission can have a decisive and swift impact.

Quotes worth noting:

54% of Europe's energy is imported at a cost of €700 for every EU citizen. We have to address this urgently, by taking measures to increase our energy efficiency and reduce our dependence on imports. We have to invest and diversify. The proposals adopted today represent an unequivocal statement of the Commission's desire to guarantee secure and sustainable energy supplies, and should help us deliver on the crucial 20-20-20 climate change targets.

José Manuel Barroso, Commission President

But we have to do more, be more ambitious, and be even bolder to avoid the risk of energy disruption in the future. This means investment. Investing in energy, including energy efficiency, means giving our economy the push it needs at this uncertain time.

Andris Piebalgs, Energy Commissioner

The development of strong and reliable energy partnerships with suppliers, transit countries and other major energy consumers is key, and therefore the new generation energy interdependence provisions proposed today is an important step forward.  Today's review also proposes steps to strengthen the EU's capacity to mobilise in support of essential infrastructure to bring supplies from third countries.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Commissioner for External Relations

Urgency. The role of Energy in our society and the menaces posed by internal depletion seem to be now grasped, if not fully at least in good measure. Too bad that this Commission hadn't the same conscience when it took office in 2004, but better later than ever. It is also worth pointing that this Commission is not dreaming about “energy independence” and acknowledges healthy foreign relations as an important pillar of the Union's energy predicament.

Implementing the measures to reach the targets set by the European Council towards the 20-20-20 agenda is the first priority of SER-2, with the security of supply relegated to second place. But, the scenario is painted with straight colours:

Even when the renewable energy policy goals are reached, Europe is likely to be dependent on more imports than today. The EU needs to improve the current policies to achieve its energy efficiency objective. Moreover, the ability of the EU to respond together in a crisis needs to be strengthened.

Such sobriety is encouraging. But it should be made more clear that a scenario where the EU imports more energy by 2020 than now is very unlikely; the exact opposite is what should be expected – hence the concern.

One more point worth highlighting:

Greater focus on energy in the EU's international relations, including through [sic] establishment of relationships with supplier, transit and consumer countries based on interdependence will contribute to the achievement of the EU energy policy goals and also increase the EU's influence on international energy developments. Closer coordination among Member States and with the Commission in external energy relations will be particularly important in this regard.

The acknowledgement that Energy will henceforth have a pivotal role in geopolitics and that an integrated European Energy Policy will naturally require an integrated European Foreign Policy. This is one point that still haunts the EU (well patent when Kosovo declared independence) and once more stresses the need for an update of European Institutions.

Finally some interesting things can be read between the lines of the closing paragraphs:


The first Strategic Review led to the European Council agreement in March 2007 on energy policy targets for Europe. Since then, the Commission has proposed a number of measures to deliver these goals, including a package of proposals to open up the EU energy market further, now close to adoption, a Strategic Energy Technology Plan to promote clean energy technology, new measures to improve the energy consumption of consumer goods and proposals for new compulsory targets on renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

The March 2007 European Council invited the Commission to bring forward an updated Strategic energy Review in early 2009. The proposals adopted today respond to that request.

From this steams the idea that the previous proposals directed at deregulating the Energy Market failed to address either Climate concerns or Energy Security, eventually leading to this second Strategy. SER-2 represents a re-formulation of the Energy Policy defended during the first half of this Commission's office, that in face of events had this time to address reality.