Mountain areas: EU should help boost local energy potential

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This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.

Political and financial support is needed from the EU to help rural areas develop renewable energies at local level such as biomass and small hydro, according to Euromontana, an association representing Europe's mountainous regions.

Marie Guitton is project manager at Euromontana, the European association for the co-operation and development of mountain territories. Members of Euromontana include regional development agencies, local authorities, agricultural organisations, environment agencies, forestry organisations and research institutes.

She was speaking to EURACTIV's Outi Alapekkala.

To read an article drawing on this interview, please click here.

What characterises mountainous regions and what are their specific energy issues compared to other rural or indeed urban areas?

We share some common issues with other rural areas, of course, like remoteness and the small size of villages and communities. Notwithstanding that there are of course some bigger cities in mountainous areas as well.

So for rural areas the problem is about access to the energy mix – you don't have domestic gas in remote villages because the infrastructure is too expensive to build and the final cost per capita would be too high.

As for mountainous areas, the cost of building gas infrastructure would be even higher because of the slopes and related difficulties in building the infrastructure. For this reason people often still heat their homes with petrol, which is more polluting.

Another characteristic of mountainous areas is the higher frequency of storms and avalanches, which frequently damage electric lines, cause power cuts and compromise the security of the infrastructure. Here, you might want to build the infrastructure underground to make it more secure, but it would increase the cost even more.

How energy-secure are mountainous areas at present?

I learned from the project manager of RURENER – an EU-funded project to support small communities to help them set up energy action plans – that a commune in a mountainous region in France can have more than 10 electricity cuts per year due to storms and other climatic conditions.

The number of climatic incidents is also expected to increase with climate change, and mountainous regions are predicted to be the first ones to suffer from that.

But we need to find a solution to put an end to these power cuts.

What do you see as potential solutions to improve the situation and what role could renewable energies play in making mountainous areas more energy-secure?

Another specific characteristic of mountainous areas is the availability of renewable energy sources.

The first one is water and it is already used a lot. There are a lot of dams that produce hydroelectricity. There is not really any room for improvement of its use, at least regarding building new large-scale dams, but there is potential for smaller plants and micro-turbines on a very local scale.

But regarding hydropower, the question is also about how to reward mountainous regions for the production of this electricity, which is then sold to other areas. In some countries, like in Norway, there is a well-defined mechanism to reward the mountainous regions for this.

It is not only about the municipality where the dam is built, but about the larger territory being used. You need to have good management of the area around the dam to make sure there is enough water. So it is about forest management as an 'ecosystem service', for example.

We think that not only should the dam's host municipality be compensated, as is often the case (through taxes from the company, for example), but also the other municipalities that belong to the same water basin. They could get a return for participating in the production of electricity through managing the area.

Ways to deal with this issue differ between the different European countries.

Would you say that water is the most important renewable source of energy in mountainous regions?

It is definitely at least the most exploited one to produce electricity. But you also have other energy sources which can be much better exploited.

Here the first one would be biomass, because there are a lot of forests in mountainous areas: some 40% of mountainous areas in Europe are covered by forests. So there is a huge potential to use this biomass – either directly with wood logs to heat a house or through local plants via the use of by-products of wood production, such as saw mill dust.

One of our members in Romania is using sawdust to produce energy. In their city, Vatra Dornei, they have a big plant that collects the sawdust from all saw mills in the area and then this is used to produce energy and heat for the city network.

So thanks to the big forest cover, Europe's mountainous areas have a big biomass potential compared to other rural areas – but of course this potential is also country-specific.

What is the current use of biomass in mountainous regions and do people heat their houses with wood?

I'd say that it is quite common for households to have a fireplace. But what can be improved regarding biomass is the scope of its use. Not only having a fireplace in your house but also having a boiler which works with wood pellets, for example. However, this can of course be done in other areas as well.

In addition, the biomass supply chain could be local, because you have all this wood available. So there is an opportunity to develop local supply chains and the local economy.

Could mountainous areas also export biomass for energy?

Yes, and I think some regions already export more than they transform locally.

It is clear that mountain forests could be exploited more for their biomass potential, but also for wood construction. Euromontana is actually currently doing a study on forests, on how to improve the harvest of mountain wood and the wood supply chains in mountainous areas.

In that study we are also looking at how to have local supply chains, because sometimes the wood is harvested and then sent elsewhere for sawing before being brought back for local use.

If the wood is sawn locally, it is an additional economic activity [that is] important for mountain regions. Moreover, there are by-products as well and all this related activity can boost the local economy.

In addition, we also need to consider the organisation of local grids and networks – like in the example of that Romanian city using sawdust to produce heat used in a local network.

There is currently a lot of research on smart and local grids and these indeed need to be developed with the possibility to plug into the grid energy from different sources. With local grids you can avoid cuts in electricity and avoid loss of power due to long-distance transportation of energy in the grid.

Having local grids powered by renewable energy sources would greatly enhance mountainous regions' energy security.

In the end it is about having the best mix of different sources of energy in every region. In every region there are a variety of sources of energy – water, biomass, solar, wind, geothermal heat – and their optimal use should be developed locally.

What kind of energy support or initiatives do you expect from the EU?

There are currently a lot of initiatives in the EU to develop renewable energy, like the smart cities initiative. However, as its name indicates, it is focused on cities. But what do you do when you are in a remote rural area?

So you would like to have something more specific on rural areas, such as 'energy-smart mountains'?

Yes.

There is for example the Covenant of Mayors to support municipalities who want to do sustainable energy action plans (SEAPs). But you have to be big enough to engage in producing a SEAP. You need to have the staff and knowledge to do that. When you come from a small municipality or village you simply cannot engage in doing a SEAP following the Covenant of Mayors' recommendations.

This is why the RURENER project and initiative was developed in the first place – to focus on small municipalities that have less administrative capacity, knowledge and money, but can still do a lot.  

Euromontana has now developed and submitted a proposal for a project under the EU's Intelligent Energy Europe programme, which supports initiatives to improve energy efficiency and the use of renewables. We submitted the project because there is a real need for this kind of action in mountainous regions as well.

The climate in mountainous areas is harsh and winters are much colder than elsewhere, so you need to improve energy efficiency and make sure, for example, that your home is well [insulated] not to waste energy.

Our IEE project proposal is about continuing to do what the RURENER is currently doing, but specifically in mountainous regions.

Do you expect any political support or action from the EU?

We would like to see a stronger interest from the EU towards small communities and rural areas, as currently the focus is so much on urban areas. Of course we don't want to have any opposition between urban or rural areas, as they are complementary.

Electricity used in urban areas comes from nuclear plants, but also from water plants located in mountain regions, and we'd like this to be better acknowledged.

Furthermore, we'd like the EU to acknowledge that people living in rural areas must also be given the means to develop new energy alternatives in their own areas. And this touches upon everything from administrative capacity and climatic problems to infrastructure set-up and problems related to possible power cuts.

People living in remote rural areas should have the option of not heating their homes only with petrol – to put it simply. They should be offered the [opportunity] to improve their situation and to use, for example, the wood close to them.

Finally, it is also a matter of territorial cohesion.

In the future CAP post-2013, we would naturally welcome measures on forests and biomass because mountainous areas' biomass potential is currently underexploited. However, production of biomass for biofuel is clearly not an issue for mountainous areas, because using its agricultural land for food production should be a priority.

While energy is of course also a national and regional-level issue, the EU sets priorities with its programmes and policies – like the one on smart cities.

But when the EU gives priorities, for example on 'energy towards 2050', we would like to see more concretely that there is also an interest in local-level issues, because these are currently not really dealt with and there are no incentives.

Future priorities mainly focus on securing the provision of energy and developing energy corridors to transport energy from some areas to others, and this is of course relevant and needed.

But what about considering what can be done locally, and how can we better use what we already have everywhere? We'd like to see more incentive from the EU on this – both political and financial.

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