This article is part of our special report Rural Energy.
European regions are moving ahead with reforming their energy sectors with or without an invitation from the European Commission, a gathering of regional representatives heard in Brussels yesterday (29 April).
The 'European Regions Energy Day', organised by the Assembly of European Regions (AER), a body independent from EU institutions, brought together officials from a multitude of regional authorities alongside representatives of the EU institutions.
The regional delegates presented examples of innovative ways in which they are improving their energy efficiency, ranging from passive houses in Sweden to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Spanish ports.
Regions view themselves as the frontline soldiers in the EU's drive towards a sustainable energy sector, but some actors – notably the AER – feel that the European Commission is yet to grasp this (EURACTIV 14/04/10).
Speaking at the conference, EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn assured regions that the EU executive does indeed view them as important players, and will legislate accordingly in the coming months, integrating their role in broader EU policies such as the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
In response, AER President Michèle Sabban told EURACTIV that while she agreed “completely” with Commissioner Hahn’s sentiments, “I want us to move beyond words to real action”.
She cautioned that if regions are not given a more central role in the EU’s guiding strategies for the future, these plans would fail.
“Mr Barroso failed to take the regions into account in his European recovery plan, and is now seeing the results in Greece, Spain and Portugal,” she claimed, adding that “the regions aren’t going to wait for orders from the Commission” when it comes to taking action on energy reform. “They’re taking this responsibility and power for themselves.”
Use the money, says Hahn
The debate didn’t end there, however. Hahn expressed his disappointment that the substantial chunks of EU regional funds earmarked for sustainable energy projects are not being used quickly enough by EU member states or regions.
Sabban countered that while it was indeed important that more regions apply for these hefty funding possibilities, “it’s not enough to throw money at these problems”.
“While I acknowledge the importance of EU funds, political action also has an important role to play,” she said.
Regions cooperate on energy
Meanwhile, the delegates heard concrete examples of regional action, where partners are increasing cooperation to bring in renewable energy strategies and learn from best practices in leading regions.
Peer reviews organised by the AER have offered a forum for regions to gauge expert advice when developing new projects and strategies, said Justyna Podralska, policy coordinator at the AER Committee for Economy and Regional Development.
Upon request from a local authority, a committee made up of experts from regions with a similar energy profile can be convened to make a field visit to the host region and compile recommendations on how best to carry out the project in question.
“The added value of peer reviews is that advanced regions can also learn new lessons” by participating as members of expert groups, Podralska added.
“This is an instrument for all regions,” she stressed, adding that experts from areas with advanced renewables policies had often come to learn from solutions chosen by less progressive regions.