European Commission, Directorate General for Energy

Background: Towards a low carbon future: European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (also see article of same date)

On 22 November, the European Commission presented the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan). Low carbon technologies will play a vital role in reaching our energy and climate change targets. The main goal of the SET-Plan is to accelerate the development and implementation of these technologies. This background note sets out the details of the SET Plan. Its rationale accompanied by some useful background figures and charts is set out in MEMO/07/494.

Technology is vital for reaching energy and climate change objectives

The inter-related challenges of climate change, security of energy supply and competitiveness are multifaceted and require a coordinated response. We are piecing together a far-reaching jigsaw of policies and measures: binding targets for 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% and ensure 20% of renewable energy sources in the EU energy mix; a plan to reduce EU global primary energy use by 20% by 2020; carbon pricing through the Emissions Trading Scheme and energy taxation; a competitive Internal Energy Market; an international energy policy.

Technology is vital in reaching all the above-mentioned objectives. We need a dedicated policy to accelerate the development and deployment of cost-effective low carbon technologies. To meet the 2020 targets, we need to lower the cost of clean energy and put EU industry at the forefront of the rapidly growing low carbon technology sector. In the longer term, if we are to meet the greater ambition of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80% by 2050, new generations of technologies have to be developed through breakthrough in research.

The transition to a low carbon economy will take decades and touch every sector of the economy, but we cannot afford to delay action. Decisions taken over the next 10-15 years will have profound consequences for energy security, for climate change, for growth and jobs in Europe.

Weaknesses in energy innovation today

Since the oil price shocks in the 70s and 80s, Europe has enjoyed inexpensive and plentiful energy supplies. The easy availability of resources, no carbon constraints and the commercial imperatives of market forces have not only left us dependent on fossil fuels, but have also tempered the interest for innovation and investment in new energy technologies. In short, there is neither a natural market appetite nor a short-term business benefit for such technologies. This market gap between supply and demand is often referred to as the 'valley of death' for low carbon energy technologies. Public intervention to support energy innovation is thus both necessary and justified.

Public and private energy research budgets in the EU have declined substantially since 1980s. This has led to an accumulated under-investment in energy research capacities and infrastructures. If EU governments were investing today at the same rate as in 1980, the total EU public expenditure for the development of energy technologies would be four times the current level of investment.

The energy innovation process, from initial conception to market penetration, also suffers from unique structural weaknesses. It is characterised by long lead times, often decades, to mass market due to the scale of the investments needed and the technological and regulatory inertia inherent in existing energy systems. New technologies are generally more expensive than those they replace while not providing a better energy service.

Key technology challenges for the next 10 years

To achieve the 2020 targets a twin-track approach is needed. Reinforced research has to lower costs and improve performance. Pro-active support measures are to create business opportunities, stimulate market development and address the non-technological barriers that discourage innovation and the market deployment of efficient and low carbon technologies.

To achieve the 2050 vision, towards complete decarbonisation, we need to develop a new generation of technologies through major breakthroughs. Even if some of these technologies will have little impact by 2020, it is vital that we reinforce efforts today to ensure that they come on-stream as early as possible. We also have to plan for major organisational and infrastructure changes.

Key EU technology challenges for the next 10 years to meet the 2020 targets:

  • Make second generation biofuels competitive alternatives to fossil fuels, while respecting the sustainability of their production;
  • Enable commercial use of technologies for CO2 capture, transport and storage through demonstration an industrial scale, including whole system efficiency and advanced research;
  • Double the power generation capacity of the largest wind turbines, with off-shore wind as the lead application;
  • Demonstrate commercial readiness of large-scale Photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power;
  • Enable a single, smart European electricity grid able to accommodate the massive integration of renewable and decentralised energy sources;
  • Bring to mass market more efficient energy conversion and end-use devices and systems, in buildings, transport and industry, such as poly-generation and fuel cells;
  • Maintain competitiveness in fission technologies, together with long-term waste management solutions;

Key EU technology challenges for the next 10 years to meet the 2050 vision:

  • Bring the next generation of renewable energy technologies to market competitiveness;
  • Achieve a breakthrough in the cost-efficiency of energy storage technologies;
  • Develop the technologies and create the conditions to enable industry to commercialise hydrogen fuel cell vehicles;
  • Complete the preparations for the demonstration of a new generation (Gen-IV) of fission reactors for increased sustainability;
  • Complete the construction of the ITER fusion facility and ensure early industry participation in the preparation of demonstration actions;
  • Elaborate alternative visions and transition strategies towards the development of the Trans-European energy networks and other systems necessary to support the low carbon economy of the future;
  • Achieve breakthroughs in enabling research for energy efficiency: e.g. materials, nano-science, information and communication technologies, bio-science and computation.

What is the Commission proposing?

The SET-Plan proposes to deliver the following results: (i) a new joint strategic planning, (ii) a more effective implementation, (iii) an increase in resources, and (iv) a new and reinforced approach to international cooperation.

1) Joint strategic planning will enable a better orientation of efforts and would be the seed to bring together our researcher and our industry.

Early 2008 the Commission will establish a Steering Group on Strategic Energy Technologies to steer the implementation of the SET-Plan, reinforcing the coherence between national, European and international efforts. The Group, chaired by the Commission, will be composed of high level government representatives from Member States.

In the first half of 2009, to review progress the Commission will organise a European Energy Technology Summit that will bring together all stakeholders in the entire innovation system, from industry to customers, as well as representatives of the European institutions, the financial community and our international partners.

To support the definition of energy technology objectives, as well as to build consensus around the SET-Plan programme, the Commission will establish an open-access information and knowledge management system on energy technologies.

2) For effective implementation we need more powerful mechanisms that can leverage the potential of European industry and researchers.

In 2008 the Commission proposes to launch six new European Industrial Initiatives that will target sectors for which working at Community level will add most value – technologies for which the barriers, the scale of the investment and risk involved can be better tackled collectively.

The initiatives are as follows:

  • European Wind Initiative: focus on large turbines and large systems validation and demonstration (relevant to on and off-shore applications).
  • Solar Europe Initiative: focus on large-scale demonstration for photovoltaics and concentrated solar power.
  • Bio-energy Europe Initiative: focus on 'next generation' biofuels within the context of an overall bio-energy use strategy.
  • European CO2 capture, transport and storage initiative: focus on the whole system requirements, including efficiency, safety and public acceptance, to prove the viability of zero emission fossil fuel power plants at industrial scale.
  • European electricity grid initiative: focus on the development of the smart electricity system, including storage, and on the creation of a European Centre to implement a research programme for the European transmission network.
  • Sustainable nuclear fission initiative: focus on the development of Generation-IV technologies.
  • Several initiatives that are already being implemented, or are well advanced in their preparation, serve as illustrative examples: the European fusion research programme and its flagship 'ITER'; the Single European Sky air traffic management research programme (SESAR); the proposed Joint Technology Initiative on Fuel Cells and Hydrogen; and the proposed 'Clean Sky' Joint Technology Initiative on the environmental impacts of aviation.

To bring about a move from today's model of collaborating on projects towards a new paradigm of implementing programmes and to align these programmes with the SET-Plan priorities, the Commission proposes to create a European Energy Research Alliance.

The European Institute of Technology could provide an appropriate vehicle to realise this ambition, through a Knowledge and Innovation Community on energy and climate change.

The Commission proposes to initiate in 2008 an action on European energy infrastructure networks and systems transition planning. It will contribute to optimise and harmonise the development of low carbon integrated energy systems across the EU and its neighbouring countries. It will help the development of tools and models for European level foresight in areas such as smart, bi-directional electricity grids, CO2 transport and storage and hydrogen distribution.

3) Resources

Implementation of the SET-Plan will help overcome the fragmentation of the European research and innovation base, leading to a better overall balance between cooperation and competition. Encouraging more focus and coordination between different funding schemes and sources will help to optimise investment.

Two challenges need to be addressed: mobilising additional financial resources, for research and related infrastructures, industrial-scale demonstration and market replication projects; and education and training to deliver the quantity and quality of human resources required to take full advantage of the technology opportunities that the European energy policy will create.

At the end of 2008 the Commission intends to present a Communication on financing low carbon technologies that will address resource needs and sources, examining all potential avenues to leverage private investment, including private equity and venture capital, enhance coordination between funding sources and raise additional funds.

4) International cooperation should be a fundamental pillar in our European strategy.

We need to take our international cooperation on energy technology to a new dimension. The measures proposed in the SET-Plan (e.g. the Steering Group, European Industrial Initiatives and the European Energy Research Alliance) should bring about a reinforced international cooperation strategy. We also need to ensure that the EU increasingly speaks with one voice in international fora, where appropriate, to achieve a more coherent and stronger partnership effect.

The purpose of the Technology Map is to underpin the SET-Plan Communication. Based on it the SET-Plan proposes actions to accelerate low carbon energy technology development and deployment through European Industrial Initiatives. The Technology Map provides a quantification of the potential contributions of key technologies to: Environment - CO2 emission reductions; Security of Energy Supply - fossil fuel savings; and Competitiveness - changes in the cost of energy.

The following table from the Technology Map summarises for each technology: the description of the current status and the anticipated developments; the current and future potential share in the European energy demand; the quantified impacts of technology penetration (Environment - Greenhouse gas emissions; Security of supply; and Competitiveness); the barriers to penetration in the European energy market; the needs to realise its potential and the synergies with other technologies and sectors.

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