Ecofys: rural regions tend to use higher-carbon fuels

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This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.

Due to limited fuel choice, households in rural areas have turned to heavily-polluting oil and coal as their main source of energy, highlighting the potential of switching to cleaner energy sources, said in an interview with EURACTIV Ecofys' Ann Gardiner relating the findings of a new study.

Ann Gardiner is director of international energy and climate policy and strategy at Ecofys, a consultancy. Ecofys is primarily active in the fields of renewable energy, energy and carbon efficiency, energy systems and markets, and energy and climate policies. It recently conducted a study on rural energy in Europe.

She was speaking to EURACTIV's Outi Alapekkala.

Your study on rural energy in Europe will be made public at the 2011 Rural Energy Day in Brussels. Why did you conduct this study?

The study is part of and was sponsored by the FREE initiative (Future of Rural Energy in Europe), because to date the energy use in rural areas is not really known very well. And if you want to change things for the better then you need to know where you currently stand and have benchmarks.

What were your research questions? What kind of information does the report provide?

We wanted to see whether there were differences in the energy use, and in particular fuel use, in urban and rural regions in different countries. The fuel use is important because of two aspects: one is that if you are using certain fuels, obviously there are higher emissions associated with those fuels.

Second is that there are also economic effects related to the available choice of fuels, as some fuels are more expensive than others. So that can have an effect on consumers in certain regions as well.

What are the most expensive and cheapest fuels?

Oil tends to be more expensive, in particular heating oil. The cheaper options are usually gas and also some renewables – depending on what they are.

Your study has a special focus on five countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK. Why did you choose these countries?

We wanted to have a look at a group of countries that represents the majority of the energy use and emissions in the EU – the five countries represent 61% of the EU population and energy use, and 62% of the CO2 emissions.

We also wanted to cover countries we thought would have different fuel mixes and were in different types of regions.

Is your report representative of the whole of the EU's energy use in rural areas?

There are obviously different areas with regional specificities – but I think that by choosing these five we’ve got a fair picture of the whole of Europe. At least you can draw the major trends from this.

What are the main sources of energy in Europe's rural areas today?

It is actually a mix – as our individual country results show. But what our results say is that in rural regions generally, there are more of the higher carbon fuels used in the fuel mix, such as heating oil, and coal in Poland.

As a general trend we can say that more of the higher carbon fuels are used in rural regions. Anecdotally this is what we expected as a study result, because when you think of rural areas you know that gas networks are not always expanded there.

Should this observation – that rural areas use more higher carbon fuels – lead to an improved EU focus on rural energy issues when it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint from energy use?

It is more of a focus in rural development policy. Because you can get double benefit: by providing different energy you can get an economic benefit for the region, but you can also contribute to meet the greenhouse gas reduction target. 

So there is benefit in including the topic of energy more in the rural development activities.

How energy-secure are Europe’s rural areas? Is there some form of energy production that is easier to implement than others?

We did not really look at this aspect in our study.

In general: the more choice you have for fuel, the more secure you are, and particularly some renewables can make an important contribution to energy security. For rural regions, LPG is also an interesting option because it does not require the infrastructure of natural gas. 

Would you say that rural areas have access to good energy mixes or is access limited?

Access is obviously limited to a certain extent by the availability of gas networks. And this choice is not available in some rural areas. Therefore the fuel mix might be limited. There is no reason why it couldn't be more mixed.

It is not always economic to extend the gas and electricity networks but there are other options that could be used more to give a greater diversity of fuel in rural areas than there is now. I mentioned previously renewables and LPG as options.

Could one say that Europe's rural areas are very dependent on oil and that more needs to be done to increase the use of renewables to put an end to rural areas' oil dependency?

More renewables could certainly be used and that would reduce dependence on oil, as would the use of fuels such as LPG. One observation from the report is that agriculture is very dependent on oil: rural households less so, although they use more oil than in urban areas.   

Does your report put forward policy recommendations regarding energy use in rural areas?

In this report we did not look at what policies should be implemented. We really see this study as the beginning of a policy process. Data is now available to policymakers and my feeling is that there is a need for a mix of policies: a top-down push maybe from the Commission, but you would probably also need a mix of different policies in different countries, because of the differences we saw between countries.

So we do not formulate any specific policy recommendations. Our report is an assessment of how things currently stand and gives a basis for future policy developments.

But there are probably also other aspects you need to look at when developing the policies, because this report was very much focused on the fuel mixes.

What other aspects need to be looked at before developing policy recommendations on rural energy?

As there are specific fuel mixes in particular countries, there might be easier ways to substitute different fuels, depending on the existing infrastructure of buildings, for example: if you use coal boilers – maybe it is easier to replace them with biomass compared to a situation when you are using an oil one.

But there is also the efficiency side, which we did not particularly look at: anecdotally you would say that in some European rural areas the houses are not quite as efficient. So you need to look more specifically at the energy efficiency of buildings, for example, before making policy recommendations. 

Regarding the extensive use of coal in Poland: do you think coal could be substituted with biomass? 

There are no technical barriers to coal being substituted by biomass. The timescale over which that would be possible would depend on establishing supply routes and we did not look at those in this study.

Apart from Poland, your report notes a small share of coal use in rural areas in the UK and Germany, but of course nothing compared to the extent it is used in Poland. Do you want to comment on that?

You can generally say that where you've got oil and coal use – it is an indication that the gas network doesn't extend to those areas. Both the UK and Germany also have a history of their own production of coal.

Your report also recommends targeted support for low-carbon and renewable energy in rural areas. What exactly do you have in mind?

A lot of national policies that are aimed at renewables will apply in rural areas as well. In our opinion different approaches are needed to get those policies into the area, or probably you need different approaches to providing information. But we did not particularly look at that in this study.  

Are you aware of any plans for increased support for rural areas on energy topics in the future EU budget, regional funds or the Common Agricultural Policy, for example?

The topic is becoming more prominent. I don't know of any specific initiatives – and this is also why we believe that our report is well-timed because it can be built into this policy discussion.

What would be an ideal energy mix for rural areas? Is there one form of energy that is 'better' than others?

It depends on the country. One of the things is that if you're off the grid there are obviously better options in terms of biomass or other renewables, such as solar and thermal, that are available and probably more economically than in urban areas. This is because of the relative cost of heating oil, for example. LPG can also contribute to the mix, as it is available without large changes in infrastructure and is in fact already used to a certain extent. 

But you have to take into account what is available in the region. And that is of course a very local and regional analysis.  

Did you look at the development of local grids in rural areas?

The balance there is having the right number of buildings that can be attached to the grid. As I understand it, they work better when there is a certain load available. So 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 very [widely] distributed farms, etc.

Your report also looks at CO2 reduction potential in different countries' rural areas. What results did you get on this topic?

If you can replace everything with renewables you obviously have higher emissions reductions.

We said that if you actually only reduce the heating oil and coal use in households and commercial buildings, then you can save 35 million tonnes of CO2, which is the equivalent of the CO2 emissions of about 3,500 small towns, which is a lot.

But here again you really need to look at the economics of it. Even replacing those by lower carbon fuels will give you a CO2 emissions reduction of some 150 small towns in Germany alone.

You talk about the GHG emission reduction potential in particular in agriculture – why is that?

Obviously it is quite an important economic sector in rural areas – probably the most important economic sector in rural areas. But it is also a sector which has not had so much emphasis on energy use. Obviously there are other GHG emissions from agriculture and they are subject to policy developments – but energy use in agriculture has not been a particular focus.

As for energy use in agriculture, we looked at fuel use in tractors and electricity used in farms. In quite a few areas of agriculture farms have generators, which often use oil as well.

The thing is that agriculture is quite a difficult sector to tackle because there are a lot of different uses of energy and thus sources of emissions. But all them put together represent big energy use. And if you put more emphasis on that, there are some gains to be made – partly because it has not been tackled so much before.

Did you give any recommendations on energy use in agriculture in rural areas?

No. That’s definitely beyond the study and it is a relatively complicated area.

Obviously there are things like being able to use biogas from farm waste, etc – but then there are a lot of discussions about what the correct scale of that would be, and that needs to be taken into account.

Regarding rural areas' energy issues, what is the main topic: is it about access, price, 'greenness' or inefficiency?

This study has shown that there is a fuel difference between rural and urban areas in a lot of countries, and in some countries the difference is quite pronounced. And where fuels are higher carbon it gives an opportunity to reduce emissions.

Benefits also depend on the mixture of access and the economics, because they are very much interconnected.

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