The SET-Plan is a partnership at its heart: A continent-wide partnership between European governments, industry and research organisations in European countries and regions, and the European Commission. It is a partnership conceived to accelerate the energy transition by working together towards common goals. That is why public partnerships (P2Ps) and the concept of joint programming are crucial in trying to achieve the SET-Plan’s objectives and, ultimately, in making the Energy Union a reality.
One of these objectives is to ensure that the various energy research and innovation funding programmes that exist in Europe are as coherent and complementary as possible, so that common interests and priorities are identified and duplicate efforts are avoided. To do this, it is necessary to build bridges and seek synergies between these programmes and to provide opportunities to collaborate for the people responsible for the programmes.
Horizon 2020 is one such programme. It is not only the main programme through which the European Commission supports the SET-Plan, but it also provides some opportunities to collaborate, through its joint programming instruments, such as ERA-NETs and European Joint Programmes.
Just over three years into the programme may be a good time to take stock of the experience so far with energy ERA-NETs in Horizon 2020.
Nine energy ERA-NET networks have been launched since the start of Horizon 2020, with another one under preparation. As a result, at least twenty joint calls for proposals have been, or will be, launched by participating countries, thereby extending the reach of EU and national research funding programmes. Creating ERA-NET networks is a complex and laborious process, so the fact that nine already exist after three years is an achievement in itself. More energy ERA-NET networks are likely during the second half of Horizon 2020, although the pace is expected to slow down in part due to saturation (considerable efforts were made to launch as many networks as early as possible to increase the chances of building long-term collaborations) and to additional conditions which will be introduced for networks launched from 2018 onwards.
The networks launched so far represent over EUR 311 million in public funding commitments for the period 2015-2021, including an EU contribution of over EUR 96 million. One of the difficulties experienced so far has been making the best and fullest use of these funds. This has not always been possible for a number of reasons. The main reason has been a consequence of a conscious policy choice to focus energy ERA-NETs in the first years of Horizon 2020 on funding demonstration projects. Although, according to feedback from some ERA-NET participants, this has resulted in projects going ahead that would not have seen the light of day otherwise. The higher financing volumes and risk levels have been a contributing factor in not having as many projects applying for funding through joint calls as was expected when the networks were being put together. For some technologies, sectorial circumstances have also played a part. And another cause, common to ERA-NETs across Horizon 2020 thematic areas, has been a limitation inherent in the design of the ERA-NET instrument itself when it comes to funds being used in the most efficient way. This limitation has led on occasion to gaps in evaluation ranking lists and to projects not being funded if participating countries had not put aside sufficient budget to support all their national participants. All this has led to a shortfall in projects selected for funding and to some of the funds originally earmarked not being used. From 2017 onwards, however, the scope of energy ERA-NET topics has been widened beyond demonstration projects. From 2018, a budget reserve threshold will also be put in place to avoid ranking list gaps as much as possible. It is hoped that these measures will lead to a wider range and a higher number of quality projects being put forward.
On the other hand, this focus on demonstration activities has meant that ongoing ERA-NETs have been able to mobilise significant private funding for energy research and innovation: almost EUR 80 million for the joint calls concluded so far, which was 10 % higher than the public funding contribution. In other words, for every public euro spent funding projects through energy ERA-NET joint calls, the private sector has contributed €1.10. Encouraging private sector participation in SET-Plan activities is another fundamental principle of the SET-Plan. Considering that 85 % of energy research and innovation funding in Europe in 2014 (latest figures available) came from the private sector, the SET-Plan cannot succeed without substantial participation by private sector actors. Projects funded through ERA-NETs are showing success in this respect.
Beyond funding considerations, the main aim of the ERA-NET instrument in Horizon 2020, and of P2Ps in general, is to create a longterm collaborative environment for public funding organisations managing national and regional programmes in similar research areas, an environment which facilitates learning between funding agencies and capacity building. An evaluation of the ERA-NET instrument conducted last year highlighted that this has indeed been the main added value of the ERA-NET scheme so far. ERA-NET Cofund actions contribute to strengthening transnational cooperation and to creating a critical mass of resources to tackle EU societal challenges, including accelerating the energy transition. A particularly good example of this kind of cooperation specific to the Energy Challenge of Horizon 2020 has been the close involvement of the Joint Actions Working Group, a sub-group of the SET-Plan Steering Group led by SET-Plan countries, in developing and nurturing energy joint programming activities and ERA-NET networks.
It is too early, however, to assess whether these ERA-NETs have been successful or not in terms of effectiveness and impact, especially when it comes to increasing coherence between programmes. So far, only results from the first co-funded calls for the three ERA-NETs launched in 2015 are available, and the projects being funded as a result are only starting now. Last year’s evaluation across all thematic areas concluded that ERA-NET Cofund actions are not yet sufficiently perceived as strategic instruments that can influence national strategies and lead to an alignment of national policies and EU R&D policies. This remains a priority objective of the Energy Union and the SET-Plan, so additional efforts will be needed to increase coherence and alignment between programmes by the end of Horizon 2020. The Implementation Plans being developed by 15 SET-Plan Temporary Working Groups will eventually contain a common set of priority actions shared by European governments, industry and research organisations and will therefore offer a great opportunity to achieve this objective. This should be an important
consideration in moving forward with energy P2Ps and the SET-Plan.
Luis Miguel Valentin del Bosque
Luis is a policy officer at the European Commission's Research and Innovation Directorate General, working on matters related to energy research, strategic planning and joint programming. Before joining the Commission in 2007, he lived, studied and worked in the education sector in the UK for 12 years, after moving there from Spain as an Erasmus student. He holds a degree in History of Art and a foundation degree in IT.