Innovate or import
Presented in Brussels on 22 November by EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and EU Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik as "a very courageous step", the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan) describes Europe's dependency on fossil fuels and under-investment in clean technologies as "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen".
"If we fall behind in the intensifying global race to win low carbon technology markets, we may need to rely on imported technologies to meet our targets, missing out on huge commercial opportunities for EU businesses", the document says.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels on 22 November, Piebalgs pointed to increasing venture capital flows toward clean technologies in the US, Japan and China, but lamented that the same trend cannot be confirmed in the EU.
Research and development investments in the energy sector have decreased in the EU since the 1980s, and most European energy firms spend less than 1% of their net sales on clean technology innovation, according to the Commission.
Public sector leadership
Public intervention in support of energy innovation is "both necessary and justified" in order to overcome the 'valley of death' market gap for low carbon technologies that is characterised by a lack of "market appetite" and business incentives, according to the SET Plan.
"Industry should be prepared to increase investment and take greater risks", according to the plan. But "it is the task of governments to lead" the process, announced Piebalgs, who said that the Commission is hoping a new directive on renewable energies, to be proposed on 23 January, will instil industry confidence and increase private investment flows.
A 'collective endeavour'
The SET plan calls for greater cooperation at European level to boost innovation and proposes the following new measures:
- European Industrial Initiatives for wind, solar and bio-energy but also for nuclear fission, CCS and electricity grids. The initiatives will be funded "in different ways", such as public-private partnerships, pooling of resources between member states and other measures proposed in the January SET Plan communication (see EurActiv 20/11/07);
- A European Research Alliance featuring research coordination between universities and specialised institutes;
- Establishment of a high-level Steering Group on Strategic Energy Technologies;
- A new Energy Technology Information System, and;
- Organisation in 2009 of a European Energy Technology Summit.
In 2008, the Commission also intends to "develop its ideas" for planning the transition from a static energy grid characterised by large power-producing facilities towards a more dynamic, pan-European energy grid that can better integrate "more distributed, local generation of power", according to Potočnik.
Footing the bill
The Commission is looking for an endorsement by EU member states of its proposed industrial initiatives during the March 2008 Spring European Council.
But precisely how and by whom the SET Plan's ambitions will be financed will remain the topic of potentially heated debate over the course of 2008, with the Commission expected to propose a separate communication on SET Plan financing by the end of that year.