EU Energy Transition

By Adel El Gammal, Secretary General, EERA, (pictured)
Summer 2018

Harnessing Technological and Systemic challenges, Addressing the Societal and Political ones.

Adel El Gammal, Secretary General, EERAThe EU has historically been a driving force in fostering international climate action.
After the shortcomings of the 15th Conference Of the Parties (COP 15) in 2009, EU was instrumental in forging a global agreement in 2015 at COP 21, also known as the "Paris Agreement".

This agreement, ratified to date by 176 of the 197 parties to the Convention, charts a new course in the global climate effort with the aim to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.

Under this Agreement the EU's “nationally determined contribution” is to achieve at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2030.

The EU Strategic Energy Technology plan (EU SET Plan) was set up in 2007 as the core EC instrument to boost low carbon energy research, in the view of supporting the EU transition towards a low carbon economy. It is therefore also one of the key EU instrument to meet its international climate commitments.

The structure of the EU SET Plan still reflects its original target, i.e. boost energy research to drive down the cost of low carbon technologies towards competitive levels.

Under EU's visionary impulse, most renewable energy technologies have achieved dramatic progress, many at scales never anticipated, even by the most optimistic experts. For instance, PV still considered 10 years ago as a highly expensive marginal technology reserved for niche applications, has seen its cost reduced since then by a factor 8, making it one of the cheapest energy sources in many countries of the world. And similar achievements were observed in most other technologies, notably on- and off-shore wind.

The resulting massive deployment and unexpected penetration of non-dispatchable low carbon technologies into our energy mix has restated the Energy Transition challenge in a way that efforts should now be mostly directed towards ensuring a security and stability of the energy system, under very high penetrations of various non-dispatchable and distributed generation sources.

As research pillar of the SET-Plan, EERA has over the past decade delivered on its objectives, achieving game-changing progress in the competitiveness of several low carbon technologies.

Its focus will now increasingly be on addressing the systemic nature of the energy system as a whole.

Allowing high penetration of intermittent and distributed renewables indeed requires a complete rethink on how to manage the energy system and calls for a complete departure from the systems design and management concepts that have prevailed up to now. It is now essential to understand how energy, in all its forms, is used, at which place and time, within and across the various activity sectors, and how energy can best be generated, converted to different forms, stored and transferred between sectors. Advances in many energy technologies (e.g. Hydrogen and "Power-to-gas" technologies, batteries, Carbon Capture and Storage ..) open up new approaches to the global generation, usage and management of energy within and across the various activity sectors and applications.

Capitalizing on the holistic energy expertise of its 17 Joint Research Programmes, this is in essence the challenge that EERA addresses today.

While significant strides were recently achieved in understanding smart intersectoral linkages between various forms of energy, very little progress seems to be achieved so far on how these new approaches to energy will eventually affect the end consumer.

Indeed, the so-called "societal dimension" of the transition is often understood as ensuring its acceptability by the "citizen-consumer", himself reduced to a simple market agent.

In fact the true societal challenge is about ensuring that the transition is driven along the values and aspirations of citizens. It is about designing a new framework that is not only acceptable, but also highly appealing and desirable to EU citizens of today and tomorrow.

As such, transitioning to a low carbon regime is about far more than switching to low carbon technologies. It is about a fundamental rethink of the relationship that we, as individuals, hold to energy generation, preservation and consumption. And policy makers need to fully acknowledge that beyond technology, successfully transitioning towards a low carbon regime, is a wider challenge that entails redefining aspirations, preferences and lifestyle whereby citizens take stock of their entire energy footprint. It is about rethinking our societal values and eventually our education system.

EERA, capitalizing on its social science experts, is leading several initiatives to establish the conditions of a successful transition, by increasing awareness of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) concerns within the SET Plan policy making process.

While the size and structure of "Horizon Europe", the next EU Research and Innovation framework programme are still under discussion at the time of writing this article, it is essential to recall that the vast majority of public R&I funding still resides with Member States.

By the end of June, 14 thematic Implementation Plans covering the full SET Plan scope will have been endorsed by the SET Plan Steering Group – the governing body of the SET Plan – detailing the R&I actions that need to be implemented to achieve the overall SET Plan objectives.

Structuring a "bottom-up" institutional alignment has been the primary and original focus of EERA; it has resulted in the strong and unique convergence of efforts towards sharing research agendas across organizations within and across EU and associated countries.

However, at the outset of the critical execution phase of the SET Plan, increasing the convergence of SET Plan countries priorities – representing more than 90% of the mobilizable research funds - represents now the key challenge on which much of the SET Plan success will depend.

While research funding allocation fully remains within the political Member State’s remit, EERA, with its extensive European coverage and through the intimate institutional connections its members hold with national stakeholders, will concentrate efforts to foster and facilitate higher convergence of SET-Plan countries research priorities towards the SET-Plan objectives.

At a moment where many of the EU Member States are struggling under populist and nationalist pressures, Member State governments are now confronted with a fundamental choice on their common future.

Either they demonstrate the political courage of implementing a strong and competitive Europe, united by shared fundamental values, striving to maintain and consolidate a common EU vision and leadership.

Either they give way to short term political motives and drive illusory nationalistic priorities that will irremediably weaken Europe's share of voice in the global geopolitical arena and eventually endanger the continuity of its very founding values.

EERA has been created along the fundamental belief in the virtues of collaboration. It stands more than ever firmly, with the entire EU Research Community, to support a better common EU future.

About Adel El Gammal
Adel El Gammal is a recognized expert and a senior EU Affairs professional in the fields of low carbon technologies, energy transition, and climate change.

Before joining EERA as Secretary General, Adel was active for the last 10 years in the EU climate energy debate, notably as Director of the Becquerel Institute, a consultancy providing advanced research and intelligence on the energy transition, and Secretary General of the EU PV Industry Association (EPIA, now SolarPower Europe), where he launched the SET-Plan Solar Europe Industry Initiative (SEII).

Adel is civil engineer from Ecole Polytechnique of Brussels, holds degrees in Business Administration from Solvay Business School (Belgium) and Insead (France) and later specialized in Environment Management (IGEAT, Belgium).

About EERA
The European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) is an alliance of European public research centres and universities. It constitutes the strategic research pillar of the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan).

EERA brings together about 250 research centres and universities, representing about 50.000 energy experts across 30 countries. Actively working together on 17 joint research programmes, they build on national research initiatives. In a Joint Programme a research organization join institutions in other European countries to work on shared priorities and research projects. The EERA Joint Programmes are aligned with the priorities of the EU SET-Plan.