Brussels urges ‘sea-change’ in EU energy research

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The European Commission will ask EU leaders to support a Strategic Energy Technology Plan to put Europe on course for a low-carbon future at the Spring Summit this week. However, national considerations once again risk dampening EU ambitions.

Current efforts on energy R&D, both at member state and EU level, are insufficient to face the twin challenges of climate change and energy-supply security, the Commission will tell EU leaders at a meeting in Brussels on 8-9 March.

“‘Business as usual’ is not an option,” the EU executive body stated on 10 January in a paper outlining possible paths for future energy research. “The current trends and their projections into the future demonstrate that we are simply not doing enough”. 

“All member states have their own research programmes on energy, mostly with similar objectives and targeting the same technologies,” the Commission points out, saying that additional public and private research “complete a picture of scattered, fragmented and sub-critical capacities”.

To reinforce the point, the paper draws a comparison between EU and US energy research budgets. While the EU average (FP7 and Euratom) will be raised to €886 million per year in 2007-2013, the US Energy Bill proposes $4.4 billion for 2007 and $5.3bn for 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Taking non-nuclear energy research (renewables and energy efficiency), the EU has earmarked a comparitively meagre €1.175 billion for the period 2007-2013, or some €168 million per year (EURACTIV 19/12/2007).

“In order to be able to compete in global markets, the European Union and its member states both have to increase their investment,” the Commission stresses.

European Spring Summits are typically devoted to economic competitiveness and innovation but energy and climate change will form the major part this year. And the challenge is huge – in order to restrict global-temperature increases to 2°C maximum, Brussels says that global emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced by 50%, a figure that would imply a 60-80% reduction by Europe and other industrialised nations.

“To put the European Union and global energy systems onto a sustainable path…will require a sea-change in European energy technology innovation, from basic research right through to market take-up,” the Commission pointed out.

It therefore proposes “transforming energy technology innovation” with a European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan). In the Commission’s view, the plan should focus on a broad portfolio of technologies to develop both in the short and long term. Examples of such large-scale initiatives could include:

  • Biorefineries;
  • sustainable coal and gas technologies;
  • fuel cells and hydrogen;
  • generation IV nuclear fission.

“The strategic element of the plan will be to identify those technologies for which it is essential that the European Union as a whole finds a more powerful way of mobilising resources,” the Commission said.

The SET-Plan will not be a major issue for discussion at the summit, as there is still no draft on the table and because member states will be negotiating hard on other issues: the energy mix and whether to make renewable-energy targets binding or not.

France already said that it wants targets applied to low-carbon technologies, not just renewables, as it wants to safeguard its nuclear industry, arguing that atomic energy is already low in carbon.

But they will however recognise the need to strengthen energy research, in particular on renewables and energy efficiency. 

A draft set of conclusions, seen by EURACTIV, particularly underlines "the huge possible global benefits of a sustainable use of fossil fuels". The draft urges member states and the Commission "to bring environmentally safe carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to markets, if possible by 2020".

The Commission has outlined plans for a future EU energy research strategy as part of its energy and climate-change package of 10 January 2007.

The proposal, Towards a European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), is a careful balancing act between ambition and humility as Brussels knows that research policy is still firmly rooted at national level.

The plan does not therefore propose new radical initiatives but rather seeks to build on existing efforts, such as the EU research framework programme (FP7), European technology platforms, European Institute of Technology. And - for now at least - it shies away from proposing new EU budgetary means to reach its objectives.

  • Up to May 2007: Commission to consult established advisory groups (high-level group on competitiveness, energy and the environment. 
  • Around July 2007: Commission to launch public consultation on a preliminary draft Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan).
  • End 2007: First SET-Plan to be adopted.
  • Spring 2008: Spring Summit to endorse SET-Plan.

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