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Innovative EU regions capitalising on natural resources

An aerial view of the Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA) in southern Spain. The PSA is a specialist research centre for concentrated thermal solar energy, which uses mirrors to intensify the sun’s power. © Plataforma solar de Almería/ CIEMAT
An aerial view of the Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA) in southern Spain. The PSA is a specialist research centre for concentrated thermal solar energy, which uses mirrors to intensify the sun’s power. © Plataforma solar de Almería/ CIEMAT

From wind turbines in Germany to solar panels in Spain, regions across the EU are using natural resources to become specialists in their own type of sustainable energy, bringing much-needed investment for businesses and citizens.

Specialising in offshore wind has created new jobs in Bremen, in north-western Germany, helping the region to recover from the decline of its shipbuilding industries and fisheries.

‘We really suffered from economic decline in the 1970s,’ said Rita Kellner-Stoll, a former government official who is now project leader at germanwind, an organisation that works to foster innovation in the wind sector in Bremen. 

What helped was the fact that the components used to make offshore wind turbines are so big it makes economic sense to manufacture them close to the site of the wind farms, which are located more than 20 kilometres off the coast, bringing industry to the area.

‘What had been kind of a disadvantage to be far away from everything now turned out to be an advantage,’ Kellner-Stoll said.

Investors in offshore wind in Germany are now holding their breath as the government decides whether it will reduce its support for the subsidy-hungry sector. ‘Companies that have settled in Bremerhaven are waiting for new orders,’ Kellner-Stoll said.

One of the biggest problems with offshore wind is that while wind farms are ready, their distance from the coast means connections to the on-shore grid are often far behind schedule. For example, the Riffgat field 15 kilometres off the coast of neighbouring Lower Saxony was completed in July 2013, yet the remaining cable meant to connect it to the grid is not expected to be completed until 2014.

‘There is tremendous potential to enhance the competitiveness of European enterprises, create new markets and job opportunities, and strengthen the European industrial base.’

Dr András Siegler, Director of Energy at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation

Nevertheless, Bremen’s focus on offshore wind has already brought benefits. There are a handful of wind parks installed or under construction in the North Sea, and offshore wind has brought more than 1 500 new jobs to the Bremen region, and more than 2 000 to Lower Saxony.

The grouping of specialised industries and institutions around the area has been supported by money from the state of Bremen, from the German government, and from the EU.

‘These investments have brought tangible benefits and have been a driving force of regional development,’ Dr András Siegler, Director of Energy at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, said.

The development of these regions shows the benefit of combining different types of EU funding – money for research projects and cash used to help develop European regions, an idea that is being developed in the next round of research funding called Horizon 2020.

The EU plans to help regions by encouraging them to focus on specific areas of expertise. On top of that, energy is one of the main investment priorities for EU regional funds, and that offers opportunities for regions that specialise in things like wind and solar power.

‘In such a vast and developing sector such as energy, there is tremendous potential to enhance the competitiveness of European enterprises, create new markets and job opportunities, and strengthen the European industrial base,’ said Dr Siegler.

Natural resources

Europe’s regions become specialists by using their natural resources to their advantage. In Finland, forests cover three quarters of the land area, and the country has become a specialist in using forest biomass to generate energy, along with other clean technologies. It expects its specialisation in clean technology to create about 40 000 new jobs by 2020.

While in the heat of the Tabernas desert in southern Spain, the Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA) has become one of the world’s leading specialist research centres for concentrated thermal solar energy, which uses mirrors to intensify the sun’s power.

‘We receive a lot of visitors from all over the world,’ said Francisco Martin, from the PSA. Before deciding to install a concentrated thermal solar plant, officials will often visit the PSA because it is known for having 30 years’ of experience, he said.

Spain produces about 2 000 megawatts of electricity – about 1.3 % of its total electricity demand – using concentrated solar power, and the PSA, which has received EU funding as well as money from the Spanish government and from companies, has contributed to almost all of the installations in the country.

Spains economic crisis has now cast a deep shadow over its solar energy sector as the government has scaled back subsidies, leaving many operators without enough cash to survive.

The region of Andalucia, however, where one in three adults is unemployed, is benefiting from the PSAs status as a world leader in concentrated thermal solar energy.

‘With the support of the European regional funds we were able to build the PSA which has become over the years a reference in the field of Concentrated Solar Power energy, said Martin. ‘Today various lines of research are being developed, some of them at European level with the support of the European research and innovation funds. The activities of the PSA have contributed to the economic and social development of Andalucia.

Sustainable energy for Europe

The EU is working to accelerate the development of low-carbon energy by supporting research and innovation to improve existing technology and its deployment and stimulate the development of new ways of generating electricity.

By 2020, the EU hopes to achieve a 20 % cut in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe compared with 1990 levels, to make 20 % of energy consumed in the EU from renewable sources, and to improve energy efficiency by 20 %.

To achieve these goals, it is funding research and innovation that helps Europe make energy more sustainably. That can be by improving existing technology, for example by making it more efficient or cheaper, or by helping develop new technology.

It is all part of the EU’s 2007 Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, reinforced in 2013 by a Communication on Energy Technologies and Innovation. 

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