It has been clear for several decades that the energy systems and technological advancements currently available worldwide are not sufficient to free the planet from the greenhouse gases emitted by our energy resources. An ever widening range of new technologies aims to solve this problem by maximising the benefits of the energy system as a whole, including energy production, transformation, transportation, distribution and consumption. This work has been intensifying over the past decade, at both macro and micro level.
Since 2007, Europe has taken a strategic approach to energy technologies, identifying research and innovation priorities delivered through the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), in order to speed up the energy transition. The SET Plan seeks to transform the production and use of energy in the EU, aiming for worldwide leadership in the field, and for a reduction in the costs of marketable energy technology solutions, to enable us to achieve European targets for climate change mitigation.
A number of Commission Communications between 2006 and 2013 introduced the SET Plan concept, launched the plan, determined its financial requirements and reinforced the modalities of the implementation. Ever since, the SET Plan has become the overarching umbrella for energy research and innovation (R&I) all over Europe and in the EU R&I Framework Programme. The 2015 Communication on the Integrated SET Plan, a core initiative under the R&I pillar of the Energy Union strategy, positions the transformation of the European energy system as the major prerequisite to achieving a competitive low-carbon economy with consumers at its centre.
The enhanced and integrated SET Plan is targeted in its focus, with ten action lines to boost key technologies along an Integrated Roadmap, structured around the Energy Union's six R&I policy priorities: (1) To be world leader in developing the next generation of low-carbon technologies; (2) Consumer participation and progress towards a smart energy system; (3) Developing energy efficient systems; (4) Strengthening options for sustainable transport; (5) Driving ambition in carbon capture and storage; (6) Increasing safety in the use of nuclear energy.
The renewed SET Plan places greater emphasis on the electricity grid and smart integration of energy sources. We need system integration at a higher level. We need technological integration via smart control of the electricity grid – that’s a key issue. The development of grid-based technologies has recently become particularly fast-moving. The goal for the electricity grid pillar under the original SET Plan was to be able to integrate up to 35 per cent of renewable electricity seamlessly in the grid, and to operate a smart grid by 2020 capable of matching supply and demand. This is also about energy security. That is a reason in itself for an integrated grid and the two-directional flow of energy.
The original SET Plan included six industrial initiatives in the fields of wind, solar, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, the electricity grid, nuclear fission, fuel cells and hydrogen as well as a smart cities initiative – each with designated milestones and investment targets. Most of the envisaged spending was dedicated to stand-alone technology initiatives which undercut the effectiveness of the programme. It became clear that the link between new energy technologies and the distribution and use of energy needed to be stronger. Energy technology policy needed to embrace a holistic view and to make a strong link between technology push and the development of relevant policies and demand-side measures.
Energy storage technologies, for example, are now among the top priorities in the revisited SET Plan. The reason is clear: renewable energies such as wind and solar flow into the electricity grid in spurts, depending on the amount of sun or wind on any given day. Peak flows of renewable energy are currently wasted because the electricity grid across most of Europe is not capable of storing the energy. Without storage, an integrated energy system is not possible.
The SET Plan envisages a reinforced partnership between the Commission and SET Plan countries and, in particular, between these countries, leading to more joint actions and better coordination. The ten priority action lines are the result of a substantial participatory process that included national governments, industry and research actors all over Europe.
The selected low-carbon energy technologies are those which contribute most to the decarbonisation of the European energy sector and promise the highest increase in energy efficiency. The SET Plan also addresses the technologies that will best facilitate the integration of low-carbon technologies into the European energy system. This will help the EU to achieve its ambitious 2020 and 2030 energy and climate goals. The R&I actions will contribute towards maintaining or regaining the EU's global industrial leadership in low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency, by strengthening partnerships among national governments, industry and research actors.
In 2016, the ten actions formed the basis of discussions with SET Plan countries and stakeholders (industry and research actors) on the prioritisation of activities to be implemented under each action line. The next phase, still in progress, includes the development of Implementation Plans. Progress on the ten key actions forms part of the State of the Energy Union annual report to the European Parliament and the Council. This report is centred around Key Performance Indicators, such as the level of investment in R&I, assessing progress on performance and cost-reduction in each priority area.
I take this opportunity to note that the SET Plan is not a funding instrument, but a strategic planning and programming framework that contributes to the EU’s energy policy agenda. It aims for better alignment of public and private as well as European and national R&I agendas in the field of low-carbon energy. Its priority actions are implemented via European programmes (6% of the total energy R&I investment), mainly by the EU Research Framework Programmes (currently by Horizon 2020) and by the New Entrance Reserve (NER 300) Programmes. However, most of the funds come from national sources (28%) and in particular from industrial sources (66%).
Horizon 2020 has been integrating the new priorities. In a break with the past, Horizon 2020 calls now define energy-related challenges faced by industry and society, inviting bids to solve them. It is moving away from calls to develop a specific technology, and encourages competition among technologies to solve clearly defined problems. We wanted to define the challenge set out in the Energy calls of H2020 in such a way that it was a problem-solving exercise. Researchers can come up with different technology solutions. We did not want to be narrowly prescriptive – they can use existing technologies or new ones. The SET Plan is thus better implemented and disruptive innovation is boosted.
This short review would not be complete without highlighting the primary role of the SET Plan’s governance and implementation mechanisms: the European Technology and Innovation Platforms (ETIPs) and the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) which, under the oversight of the SET Plan Steering Group (SG) of member countries, are the core actors of the SET Plan community.
I have always considered the EERA to be the engine for European scientific energy research, performed by dedicated research entities and by universities, bringing energy technologies to the required level of maturity so that they can trigger industry-driven research. Much R&D capacity is still anchored only at national level. This leads to inefficiencies and duplications. That’s why we have created a truly European research and innovation ecosystem that builds on national capacities.
The main responsibility of the Steering Group is to ensure the best alignment between the various national energy R&I programmes and similar EU-level actions via the selection and implementation of SET Plan priorities. Acting in partnership with industry and research stakeholders, the Steering Group has been instrumental in delivering the SET Plan’s great achievements in the recent years. The ownership taken by SET Plan countries of the portfolio of actions was demonstrated by their active participation in setting the technology and cost performance targets, and has allowed us to reach the implementation phase by identifying and prioritising specific R&I actions at national and EU level in order to reach the agreed targets.
I am very much looking forward to the 2017 Bratislava Conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the SET Plan. Major progress has been achieved over the past decade in the transition to a low carbon, innovative energy future, and as the technology pillar of EU's energy research and innovation policy, the SET Plan has played a key role.
Dr. Eng. Andras Siegler
Former Director of the European Commission in charge of research and innovation in energy within DG RTD
Until recently András Siegler has been director in DG RTD of the European Commission in charge of research and innovation policies and programmes in non-nuclear energy and under EURATOM (2013-17). In this capacity he represented the Commission in the SET Plan Steering Group as well as chaired the various Programme Committees in charge of the energy portfolio of FP7 and HORIZON2020. Before that he was director for transport (2006-2012) and international cooperation (2005-2006).
Dr. Siegler graduated in control engineering from the Budapest Technical University. He holds a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, a postgraduate degree in economics as well as an MBA from the US.
He started his career as a research engineer in mechatronics and computer aided design in the Computer and Automation Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Between 1991-1996 he was vice director of the same institute.
Between 1996-2004, he was holding various senior management positions at the level of state undersecretary in the Hungarian state administration. During this period, he was in charge of national policy, legislation and fund management of research and technological innovation including national participation in European R&I programmes, the use of structural funds for boosting innovation and international science and technology cooperation. Before joining the Commission in 2005, he represented Hungary in the research policy bodies of the EU, NATO, OECD and CERN.