Energy sector innovation overview

By 2020 the European Union expects to have reduced its energy needs by a massive 315 TWh (terawatt hour) per year, thanks to a series of new measures to combat unnecessary energy use. One terawatt equals a million million watts, by the way, and 315 of them is more than Italy uses each year.

First, any European companies using electric motors will have to use 'variable speed drives', so that they operate according to the engine's needs rather than at full capacity all the time. Then, all heating systems will have to have 'intelligent' circulation technology, capable of saving 25 TWh per year by 2020.

A third new law will mean televisions and refrigerators must conform to the highest environmental standards, saving a further 30 TWh per year. "This will save impressive amounts of electricity, CO2 emissions and electricity costs, while creating jobs and boosting the deployment of highly innovative technologies," according to EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

As many as 2.8 million people will be employed in the renewable energy sector by 2020, the EU forecasts. It will generate more than one percent of the EU's GDP and will capitalise on innovative technology currently being developed in biomass, wind and hydro energy production, along with photovoltaic, solar thermal energy and second-generation biofuels.

Already, the EU has pioneered electricity generation labelling, to alert consumers to the environmental credentials of its source. The CLEAN-E network for Europe set out minimum ecological standards for renewable technologies in hydropower and biomass. The project has registered significant interest from a number of countries around Europe.

In France, a green power labelling scheme has been introduced, while in Spain, Italy, Austria and Sweden, companies, non-governmental organisations, electricity industry representatives and public bodies have all endorsed the scheme. Best practice for adopting green energy procurement has been widely shared.

Some initiatives emphasise local, small scale action rather than trying to operate across whole countries or regions. The Distributed Generation (DG) Grid stresses the benefits of generating energy from many small sources, reducing the distance that electricity (for example) needs to be transported.

The EU has deliberately set out to remove regulations that obstruct renewable energy sources (RES) and to promote combined heat and power (CPH). Part of this initiative involved finding new and innovative ways to combine the two areas, to develop economically viable models and to create a grid through which this energy can be distributed.

Each EU country must submit a 'National Renewable Energy Action Plan' (NREAP) to the European Commission by the end of June 2010. This move has two main objectives: it aims to create certainty for investors in renewable energy technologies - if they know what each country will consume, then they can invest in the technology and operations to deliver it - and to allow each country to be scrutinised in comparison with all the others. This will place an increasing burden on national governments to improve their environmental performance, so that they are not viewed as the 'dirty country of Europe', producing more than their share of harmful emissions. It will also mean that their citizens can more easily hold their politicians to account, since renewable energy is likely to become increasingly affordable, thereby becoming more attractive to consumers. If countries still produce energy using old, inefficient and polluting technologies, it will be simpler to identify this in future.

A series of further measures for monitoring the production, distribution and use of energy have been introduced by the EU. These include the European Tracking System for Electricity, the Least Cost Grid Integration project, creating renewable energy marketplaces for investors and regions, and improving the interaction of renewable electricity with conventional power generation sources.

A team of private sector executives and European Commission officials work together on Intelligent Energy Europe, helping public authorities to improve their energy efficiency and use of renewable energy resources, in line with EU policy. They also coordinate a series of other initiatives, including Energy Ambassadors, to improve sustainable energy in housing, E-Track, to reduce transaction costs and support international trade in energy, RegCEP, to create a new policy tool for sustainable energy, and INTENSE, to optimise energy planning for housing across Europe.

The EU has made determined steps to become a low-energy economy, using taxation, subsidies and CO2 trading schemes to encourage better energy practices. In addition, it has decided to reduce energy consumption by around 15 per cent by 2020, as part of a drop in energy imports of 26 per cent by that year. By 2050, renewable energies should have completely replaced carbon-producing energy generation.

Each of these initiatives seeks to put renewable energy generation higher up the European political agenda, harnessing the power of technological innovation and the willingness of European states to embrace environmentally sustainable practices.