Back in 2006, as a Commission staff member of DG ENER together with your colleagues S. Peteves (JRC) and G. Evans (DG RTD), you worked out the details of a new chapter of the European Union's energy policy, aimed at strengthening the role of technology innovation for meeting the European Union's energy and climate goals; hence the creation of the SET Plan. Given the pace of the energy transition, the establishment of the Energy Union and related policy developments since then, if you were able to redesign the SET Plan concept, what would you have done differently?
The "S" of SET Plan stands for Strategic. Above all, it was the result of applying common sense to the energy research policy, meaning the Framework Programme for Research. At the time, the EU was spreading energy research funding thinly across many small projects, involving many partners and pursuing multiple technologies, with no priorities or targets and without monitoring results (SETIS). At the same time, the EU was preparing to adopt renewable energy targets to open up the electricity market and its supporting infrastructures (Trans-European Networks).
There was a clear disconnect between the urgency imposed by climate change, security of energy supply in EU policy (targets, targets, targets) and the spreading of EU research monies in all directions. It was a matter of common sense to take the risk, and focus the research and innovation efforts on those industrial initiatives that seemed to have the highest likelihood of contributing to our energy and climate targets. And, to do that hand in hand with the industry and with the research community.
The aim of the SET Plan was to bridge EU policy and EU research, and I think the objective was accomplished.
10 years have passed since the establishment of the SET Plan and in the meantime you have joined the energy industry. Have you followed the evolution of the SET Plan? What do you consider to be its greatest achievement? Has it delivered in line with your original vision and with the evolving needs of society?
Working in the private sector I have been very far away from the SET Plan and from the activities of the European Commission in general. But, what I see in today’s global market is that there is no cheaper way to produce electricity than from renewable energy sources: wind and solar in particular.
These two, wind and solar, were certainly two key initiatives of the SET Plan, which aimed to reduce the levelised cost of energy through technological and industrial improvements, which is exactly what has happened. If I look at wind (how can I avoid it working for Vestas) when the SET Plan was adopted in 2006-7, the usual rotor diameter of a wind turbine generator in the market was 80 to 90 meters. Today, Vestas is selling machines with rotors beyond 150-160 meters’ diameter, which has, in consequence, more than halved the cost of energy.
The SET Plan also included a smart grid industrial initiative. The proposed smart grid would accommodate greater amounts of variable renewable energy sources, incorporate storage and support demand management. Today, many of the features of intelligent metering that enable demand-side management have been implemented. Electric cars and utility-scale storage with batteries are making their way onto the market. Utilities are rethinking their roles in the new electricity market and have tilted their investment portfolios towards renewables.
Establishing a direct causality between policies/programmes/plans and results is always challenging but what is clear to me is that the SET Plan was aiming in the right direction and has made a great contribution.
As a member of one of the leading, innovative, key technology providers for enabling the Energy Union and the global climate mitigation goals, how could/should the SET Plan continue to contribute to the European Union’s efforts to accelerate energy transition in the coming years? Do you see the need for more focus or for other changes that will make the SET Plan more effective?
My role in Vestas is fully focussed on the commercial area, with global responsibility for business development, so I am not involved in policy-making, or in research and technological development.
Having said that, in my opinion, the SET Plan is needed as much today as it was ten years ago. Climate change and energy security are just as much of a challenge as they were. Huge progress has been made in the right direction but we are not even half way to where we need to be.
Carbon-free generation technologies need to continue to improve. In the case of renewables, we should maintain the downwards trends of generation costs and to render these technologies more grid-friendly, overcoming the variability challenge (e.g. Vestas hybrid project in Australia, Kennedy Energy Park). The grid and the market need to evolve as well. They need to adapt their rules and the infrastructure to the cheapest and cleanest energy sources (in my opinion renewable energy sources) to make the overall system sustainable. The SET Plan should embrace these challenges and apply common sense to deliver the most with EU citizens’ monies.
Former Deputy head of unit for technology and innovation within DG ENER
Iñigo Sabater is Vice President, Head of Global Business Development for Vestas, a global leader in sustainable energy solutions. He has also been Vice President of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), and of the Spanish Wind Industrial Association (AEE). He was also the Director of the Master on Renewable Energy from the School for Industrial Organisation (EOI) in Spain.
Prior to joining Vestas, Iñigo worked at the European Commission in Brussels for 11 years, managing European Programmes for research and technological development in the fields of transport and energy, including projects such: GALILEO, the Single European Sky, ERTMS, the European Recovery Plan for CCS and Off-Shore Wind, the International Partnership for The Hydrogen Economy, the European Demonstration Programme for Alternative Transport Fuels, among others. Iñigo also led the development of the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), part of the European Energy Policy.
He holds a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the ‘Universidad Politécnica de Madrid’.