"To date the energy use in rural areas is not really known very well," said Ann Gardiner, director at Ecofys, a consultancy which has recently finalised a study on rural energy in Europe.
"And if you want to change things for the better then you need to know where you currently stand and have benchmarks," she told EurActiv in an interview.
The study will be presented in Brussels at the 2011 Rural Energy Day next Wednesday (21 September) and was funded by a platform called FREE – Future of Rural Energy in Europe – which brings together multiple industry sectors and local authorities.
The report compares urban and rural energy mixes in five countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK –, giving an approximate picture of energy consumption for the whole of Europe.
Knowing the fuel mixes in rural areas is important for two reasons, Gardiner explained. First, there are higher emissions associated with certain fuels such as heating oil and coal.
As a general trend, those higher-carbon fuels are more heavily used in rural regions than elsewhere because gas networks are less developed and because rural areas have a more limited choice of fuels, Gardiner said.
For example, reducing heating oil and coal use in households and commercial buildings, would save "35 million tonnes of CO2 which is the equivalent of the CO2 emissions of about 3,500 small towns," she pointed out.
"Even replacing those by lower-carbon fuels will give you a CO2 emissions reduction of some 150 small towns," she added.
Second, "there are also economic effects related to the available choice of fuels, as some are more expensive than others," Gardiner explained. Whereas heating oil tends to be more expensive, the cheaper options are usually gas and also some renewables, she said.
"If you're off the grid, there are obviously better options in terms of biomass and other renewables, such as solar and thermal, that are available and probably more economic than in urban areas. This is because of the relative cost of heating oil, for example."
While farming is probably the most important economic activity in rural areas, they have a limited – and often more costly – choice of energy and are therefore more vulnerable to supply disruptions, particularly because of their dependence on heating oil.
In sum, including energy issues into rural development policies would extend energy choices and contribute to meeting the EU's climate goals while also increasing energy security, she said. "Particularly some renewables can make an important contribution to energy security" she pointed out.
The European Commission's Energy 2020 strategy, presented in November 2010, suggested that rural areas could make use of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development to seek funding for innovation projects related to renewable energies, energy efficiency and smart heating and cooling grids.
Agriculture's untapped potential
Turning to energy use in agriculture, Gardiner said it "has not been a particular focus" so far when tackling the sector's global warming emissions.
Energy use in agriculture is not easy to track down, she said, because it takes multiple forms – oil is used in tractors but also in small generators, while farms use mainly electricity from the grid. "All of them put together represent big energy use. And if you put more emphasis on that there are some gains to be made," Gardiner argued.
According to the European Commission, rural areas are however gaining importance as "centres of energy production from biomass and other renewable sources".
"In general, more focus on energy mix in policies for the agricultural sector would bring substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions," the Ecofys report concluded.
The Ecofys report takes stock of the current situation but does not formulate any specific policy recommendations, Gardiner underlined.
"You have to take into account what is available in the region. And that is of course a very local and regional analysis," she said.
She also insists that the report focus on fuel mixes, but that public policies might also look at energy use in buildings. It may be easier for instance to replace coal boilers with biomass than use biomass to replace an oil boiler, she said.
The same goes for the development of local grids in rural areas, for which a certain number of buildings is required. "It might be an option in some places where you’ve got villages, for example, but less of an option if you are talking about widely distributed farms,"she said.