EU energy research lacks focus, study finds

A closer link needs to be created between research, climate change and economic objectives, says the Commission ahead of an EU summit that will decide whether to double community funding for research in non-nuclear energies.

The report, ‘The state and prospects of European energy research’, published by the Commission on 30 January, compares community and member-state R&D portfolios with those of major competitors the US and Japan.

Paradoxically, while Europe as a whole (Commission and member states taken together) puts more public resources into non-nuclear energy research than the US and Japan, its efforts are often spread out and unconnected and end up delivering fewer results in return.

“Initially, it makes sense to have broad research objectives, not prioritising any technology on the basis of early indications of potential,” says Cordis, the Commission’s R&D news service.

But this strength can quickly turn into a weakness at a later stage as centralised systems are more flexible, the study argues. “The US and Japan can more easily prioritise their programmes and ruthlessly cut activities in areas which do not appear as having a future such as geothermal and ocean energy for Japan.”

In the US, R&D efforts in bioenergies are heavily focused on a limited number of projects such as integrated biorefieneries, with a budget that is close to the global EU budget. But their chances of success are greater while European choices appear ‘random’, the report finds.

“Areas where large investments are necessary (CO2 capture and sequestration) might also benefit from a more co-ordinated central approach,” the authors write.

The EU has earmarked €2.35 billion in energy R&D for the period 2007-13 under FP7, the community framework programme for research. This contrasts with €9.05bn for information and communication technologies and €6.1bn for health.

The Commission is aware of these challenges and has demanded more centralised effort. In its ‘energy package’ of 10 January 2007, it asked for an unspecified increase in energy research spending with a Strategic Energy Technology Plan due in 2008. 

EU heads of states and government, which hold the money, will decide whether they agree to relinquish this part of their national sovereignty at a summit on 8-9 March.

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