EU urged to focus on rural energy needs, carbon solutions

rural development_0.jpg

This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.

Local representatives and energy solution providers have called on the EU to pay attention to rural areas' energy needs and help them move towards less carbon-intensive energy solutions.

The second Rural Energy Day in Brussels on Wednesday (21 September) included the publication of a new study which showed the outstanding carbon footprint of Europe's rural areas. Local communities use more polluting energy sources than urban areas and consequently have high greenhouse gas emissions, the study concluded.

This situation mainly results from a lack of access to natural gas grids and the use of higher-carbon fuels such as heating oil and coal in rural areas, it said.

But this does not need to be the case as rural areas have the potential to increase their renewables use and lower-carbon fuel sources are available, stakeholders stressed at the event

Several options are readily available including using solar panels to heat up water, producing electricity with photovoltaics, or biomass from trees, plants, manure and waste. Other technologies highlighted at the event included combined heat and power systems, geothermal heat pumps, liquefied petroleum gas cookers and central heating boilers.

Stakeholders at the event called for more political attention and financial incentives from the EU and its member states to help rural areas generate their own energy in a more sustainable way.

The FREE initiative, which organised the Brussels event, was founded in 2010 by SHV gas, a Dutch liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) distributor that seeks to act as a single voice on rural energy matters at European level. The FREE members, which include other industrial sectors and local representatives, are urging policymakers to pay attention to energy issues in areas of low economic activity and acknowledge their potential for cutting carbon emissions.

It called on the European Commission to focus its next long-term budget not only on large-scale energy infrastructure projects but also to allocate funds to "decentralised energy production and supply, especially in the areas where this type of energy production is the most effective."

Energy efficiency

FREE also hopes that the Commission will link the EU budget to the bloc's Energy Efficiency Directive and make sure that enough funds are attributed to this topic in rural housing.

Adrian Joyce, secretary-general of EuroACE, a trade group which focuses on energy savings in buildings, said the issue was particularly relevant in rural areas, where the existing building stock is generally older and less energy efficient.

"I was an architect myself for many years and I never got a commission for a new farm building or a new farm house, never. So the stock in rural areas has to be renovated to reduce energy demand," he said.

According to FREE, rural homes use on average more energy because of the building type and poor insulation and in this sense rural areas could champion energy efficiency in Europe.

Innovative financing

While there was a general consensus to support rural areas in accessing and saving energy, stakeholders also agreed that innovative financing mechanisms were needed to achieve these. Money is actually already there but a different "innovative" way is needed to access to it, they argued.

Dutch MEP Lambert van Nistelrooij (European People's Party) noted that "7% of regional policy funds are already allocated to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. However, these funds are hardly used on the regional and national level, that of course is a missed opportunity."

Adrian Joyce from EuroACE took the German banking group KFW as a good example of this. Since 2006, the bank has financed building renovations by delivering loans for businesses and individuals at rates lower than the average.

"Producing low-carbon energy close to where it is consumed, that is the challenge for rural areas. With such an approach, we stimulate regional and local partnerships to foster micro-scale generation and the creation of a 'bio-based' economy," said Dutch MEP Lambert van Nistelrooij (European People's Party).

Gerhard Stahl, secretary-general of the Committee of the Regions (CoR), an EU consultative body, admitted that rural areas have not received sufficient attention in existing CoR opinions. "Rural areas are not recognised enough. The CoR has 150 regions in its network and we need to have a permanent dialogue to assess how the implementation of the 2020 objectives is going in rural areas as well."

Stahl called for the EU's regional funds to be directed to energy efficiency measures and renewables, adding that local authorities are key partners in local energy agencies, which assist in the transition to a more sustainable, decentralised energy system.

Ulla Sirkeinen, member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), stressed that everyone in the EU should have access to energy, and at a reasonable price. "In order to have a secure energy supply, we need the availability of a diversified energy mix, together with sufficient competition between different sources of energy," she added.

Andrew Ford of the FREE initiative said that "rural areas can contribute greatly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and specific energy use policies aimed at rural communities could save money and combat climate change. In the agricultural sector, policies facilitating a better energy mix will be of enormous benefit. And access to sustainable and lower carbon energy systems in rural areas must be facilitated."

Samuel Maubanc from the European LPG association (AEGPL) regretted that rural areas that are not serviced by natural gas grids are not given enough attention at EU policy level. Meanwhile, incentives are needed to help the uptake of new technologies in the off-grid residential sector, he said.

Maubanc also regretted that while LPG is a lower-carbon choice compared to other fossil fuels, its performance has not been reflected in the recently published proposal on EU energy taxation.

Xavier Noyon, secretary-general of the European Solar-Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF) said incentives were needed to support the solar thermal market, as the initial investments can be costly and the pay-back slow.

Adrian Joyce, secretary general of the European alliance of companies for energy efficiency in buildings (EuroACE), stressed that "energy efficiency is a must if you are serious about preserving valuable resources". Joyce recalled that fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – are not only energy sources, they are also used in the production of plastics and pharmaceutical products. Europe needs to stop burning fossil fuel and reduce its demand to extend the lifetime of all these resources, Joyce said.

Over 56% of the EU-27 population live in rural areas, which cover 91% of the bloc's territory.

According to a European Commission report, rural areas are characterised by "an intrinsic fragility in economic, environmental and social terms" and face a range of challenges in terms of employment potential, income levels and access to services.

To reduce disparities between urban and rural areas, the Commission emphasises that the development of new transport, information and communication infrastructure is crucial. However, it has not so far not considered access to energy as an issue.

Subscribe to our newsletters