Turning Global Thinking into Regional Action
Michèle Sabban, President of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), considers how regions can still stimulate the development of sustainable energy measures through sectoral policies on a local level.
Much has been made of the important role played by sub-national authorities in securing a sustainable future for Europe and in addressing its environmental concerns. In previous articles by our experts, we noted that regions – when given the right competences and funding – are capable of leading the effort in tackling our biggest energy challenges. Although not all regions are empowered to directly shape energy policies, they can still influence energy markets through a number of sectoral issues. Moreover, those policies and programs that tackle the customer’s end use of energy are vital for achieving greater energy efficiency and reducing negative environmental effects linked to economic activity.
Our first annual European Regions Energy Day, held in conjunction with power generation and energy delivery technology supplier, GE Energy, was the occasion for revealing the results of an exclusive AER survey. Sixty-seven regions in 25 countries answered the questionnaire, which was undertaken to examine regional disparities and record initiatives in the field of energy, renewable energy sources (RES) and energy efficiency.
Feedback from respondents revealed some interesting statistics concerning the competence of regions and their ability to influence sectoral matters relating to energy infrastructure. One area in which effective policies are most important is within the building sector, primarily because housing is responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. However, extremely encouraging is the fact that almost 80% of participating regions indicated self-reliance at overhauling and promoting a more rational use of energy in buildings. In Austria, where planning and building laws are to a large extent determined by the federal governments, the Styria region has laid down a special building code with concrete specifications to be respected by local builders. This building code dictates that components used for construction have to meet user needs without burdening future generations with waste disposal problems or forcing them into the prolonged use of outdated buildings.
Building products and system solutions based on renewable raw materials provide a valuable contribution to the achievement of these aims. This is evidenced by the Prelude II project, instigated by the Regional Council of Midi-Pyrénées (F); an initiative geared towards promoting the use of sustainable materials in new dwellings and which also includes energy efficiency training across the county.
It’s also worth noting that more than half of the participating regions that answered the AER Survey consider the improvement of energy efficiency in private households as one of the key priorities of their energy action plans. For example, the region of Karlovac (HR) encourages its citizens and local enterprises to adopt renewable forms of energy and offers extensive subsidy schemes in order to help achieve this objective. Similarly, a number of regions offer grants to private households and enterprises for rehabilitation of buildings and household goods, while others actively carry out energy audits within private dwellings.
In the near future, it is quite likely that smart-grid-enabled smart homes, with time-of-use metering and energy management tools to help consumers monitor, manage and control energy usage, will be much more widespread. Already, companies like GE Energy are making this concept a reality by providing the means to optimize performance and reduce energy losses from major appliances, heating, cooling, and lighting.
Transport and the inevitable demands it places upon energy consumption is another area that can adversely affect the environment. However, our survey reveals that 56% of regions declare having competence over transport policies. These respondents recognize that new and innovative road, rail and public transportation modes can offer an effective way to help lower energy consumption and encourage a more sustainable way of life among citizens.
A great case in point that underlines this thinking is in the region of Västernorrland (S). Due to its remote location and sparse population, accessibility and travel inevitably have an environmental impact and has led the area to investigate implementing a logistic plan aiming to improve the sustainability of its transport sector. Transport efficiency is a key objective of this project and, it is hoped, will be reached through the development of new railways and bus routes.
Other examples of clever and effective methods to reduce energy consumption include the installation of an intelligent outdoor lighting system in the Varazdin region (HR). Aimed at cutting streetlight energy, the importance of this initiative cannot be overstated – especially when one considers that outdated street-lighting systems consume up to as much as 40% of the total energy demand for lighting.
Investment in the R&D sector is quite possibly one of the most important instruments for aiding the development of low-carbon energies on a local level. This is highlighted by the number of regional ‘sustainable energy champions’ around Europe that take form due to innovation, partnerships and extensive knowledge exchange. This is true of Valencia (E), whose ‘green energy’ sector received a strong boost following the 1994 creation of the Institute of Electrical Technology (ITE). Thanks to its extensive collaboration with local companies, ITE has largely contributed to the rapid modernization and diversification of the local energy industry. This cooperation comprised tailored training, as well as innovation and research activities undertaken by highly qualified personnel.
The level of co-operation is often influenced by governance and organizational cultures in both business and higher education, which invariably means that results can vary by region.
Overall, the exploitation of alternative energy sources and improvement of energy efficiency appear to be a focal point for most of the surveyed regions. Demonstrating the effectiveness of knowledge-sharing initiatives, 75% of respondents say their interest in learning more about sustainable energy practice is fuelled by the positive actions of others. Meanwhile, more than half want to receive relevant advice trough tailored energy peer reviews and one-third say they are ready to support other regions in developing sustainable energy policies.
Benchmarking at the European level is necessary because it helps identify, understand and adopt outstanding examples from regions that demonstrate best practices. It is safe to say that county councils having already established an energy strategy fully understand what they aim to achieve. In order to succeed, it is imperative that they reach outside their own territory and see how others are successfully implementing similar projects.
At AER, we are actively encouraging such debate via events like the recent two-day “Innovation in Energy and Research Policy”, organized in partnership with GE Energy and which attracted regional decision makers from all over Europe. Held at GE’s European Research and Development Centre, near Munich, the event covered how industry expertise can help the EU tackle climate change and presented the important role of enterprises such as GE Energy, whose innovative energy solutions are already helping to reach this objective.
Through its energy audits based on a peer review methodology, as well as its various conferences and training academies on EU funding opportunities, AER can complement regional action by providing members with effective and active learning support. Taking advantage of such resources will allow regions to organize effective awareness-raising campaigns, which will ultimately foster a sentiment of energy citizenship among individuals. This, in itself, is only good news as we continue to tackle today’s energy challenges and those of tomorrow.