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Energy is as important for Europe now as it was in the 1950s

In the hills of Provence, southern France, ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – is being built by regions representing over half the world's population. Image: ITER Organization
In the hills of Provence, southern France, ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – is being built by regions representing over half the world's population. Image: ITER Organization

In the 1950s, energy research was a force for peace in Europe, but climate change and the need for energy security mean it is at least as important now as it was then.

‘Energy research needs to be one of the main factors of European integration,’ said Professor Pierre Papon, the former director general of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). ‘This is a key point and history has shown it.’

With the European Coal and Steel Community, set up in 1951 to secure peace after the ravages of World War II, and the EURATOM organisation created in 1957, energy was among the first areas of transnational research cooperation in Europe.

Nuclear energy remains a major field of collaborative research, with the EU playing a leading role in nuclear fusion research, and making a major contribution to ITER, the experimental fusion reactor currently being built in Cadarache, France. EU research on nuclear fission concentrates on security and safety.

However, the search for clean, sustainable energy was still in its infancy when the Framework Programmes started in the 1980s. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s, when the newly established UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change began to issue assessment reports, that climate change made its way into public consciousness, and government policy.

‘I want to reform and reorganise Europe’s energy policy in a new European Energy Union.’

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

Under the Joule programme that started under the Second Framework Programme in 1987, research into energy efficiency and renewable energies became increasingly prominent, and by the Fifth Framework Programme EUR 1 billion had been invested in energy research.

The need to accelerate the development of sustainable energy and work out ways to efficiently manage the energy grid prompted the EU in 2007 to launch its Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), which aims at accelerating the development and deployment of cost-effective low-carbon technologies. It is within this overall energy policy framework that EU research on new energy technologies has taken place since the start of the Seventh Framework Programme.

Europe still has work to do before it reaches its 2020 goal of 20 % of its energy coming from renewable sources, with investment needed if an energy transition is to be achieved. That’s why secure, clean and efficient energy has been named as one of the seven societal challenges of Horizon 2020, with almost EUR 6 billion of funding allocated to it. Given what’s at stake, energy needs to be a policy priority once again for Europe. Its importance has been recognised by the new Commission with President Jean-Claude Juncker stating: ‘I want to reform and reorganize Europe’s energy policy in a new European Energy Union.’