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.
AER President Michèle Sabban told EURACTIV that "I agree completely with Commissioner Hahn's sentiments [on increasing the role of the regions in EU energy reform], but I want us to move beyond words to real action".
On the subject of Hahn's call for regions to absorb more EU regional funds earmarked for sustainable energy projects, she argued that "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".
"Regions have a major role to play in lifting Europe out of the crisis. I hope the Commission will follow our lead – I've sought a meeting with Mr. Barroso and I hope I get it," she added, arguing that "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 concluded that "the regions aren't going to wait for orders from the Commission, they're taking this responsibility and power for themselves," though she did caution that if regions are not given a more central role in the EU's guiding strategies for the future, these plans would fail.
"In Copenhagen, the nations failed, so in the post-Copenhagen period, the regions are organising themselves to get things done. You know the old dictum 'strength in unity' – well, the nations just don't get it, but the regions do," Sabban added.
Ricardo Cordoba, president of GE Energy Western Europe & North Africa, which recently entered into a strategic partnership with AER, argued that "long-term policy commitment is the key to achieving renewable energy reform in Europe".
New EU strategies need to "empower local and regional governments" to make these changes, he said, a point echoed by EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who said it was important to set energy reform objectives at the regional level to make sure that the measures allow citizens to assume their share of responsibility.
The Assembly of European Regions (AER) is an independent network of 270 regions across 33 countries and 16 inter-regional associations. It promotes regional democracy and the principle of subsidiarity, and encourages European regions to work together.
The UN estimates that 50-70% of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts will have to come from the world's regions. In an interview with EURACTIV, AER General Secretary Klaus Klipp argued that this proves that energy is not just an issue for European and national politics to deal with (EURACTIV 14/04/10).
"Regions will implement global energy policy," he said.
The European Commission will present the priorities of its 2010-2014 energy action plan during a meeting of energy ministers at the end of May (EURACTIV 06/04/10).
- End May 2010: European Commission to present priorities of 2010-2014 energy action plan.
- Spanish Presidency:The European energy policy: Main topics for the Energy Action Plan 2010-2014
- Europa:An Energy Policy for Europe
EU Actors positions
- Assembly of European Regions (AER):1st European Regions Energy Day
- Assembly of European Regions (AER):Regions in pole position to lead energetic revolution
- EURACTIV Czech Republic:Regiony ‚nebudou ?ekat na rozkazy‘ ohledn? energetické politiky
- EURACTIV Slovakia:Regióny nebudú „?aka? na príkazy“ z Bruselu