Coordinating energy research for a low carbon Europe

SET-Plan Conference 2018

Laetitia Ouillet

Panel: How can Research and Innovation help the EU to achieve the 2030 energy and climate objectives as well as the long-term decarbonisation strategy?

by Laetitia Ouillet, Eindhoven University of Technology, on November 20, 2018

I joined the University of Eindhoven three years ago after spending twenty years in the energy industry on the other side of things. And I am here representing NERA, which is part of EERA. Another interesting task I have been spending my time on since March is representing energy research in the negotiations of the climate agreement in the Netherlands.

So, what are the priorities for getting on track to 2030? I actually see three. Cost-reduction of renewables, if we want to electrify our industry and transport. It starts with the reduction of the cost of that electrification. This means slimmer, better and more carefully planned infrastructure of course. But it also means making sure that the raw material of electrification – which is renewable electricity – comes at a low cost. Integration of renewables. The pictures you have of the Netherlands being an empty country with only windmills is long gone. There is very little space and we need to find ways to go further in sea. With time, renewable energy will come closer to people, or in areas we would rather use the ground otherwise. The third one – and immediately a challenge which we will carry along to 2050 – is the challenge of keeping our energy system integrated and in balance. And there, I feel the debate – and maybe I am only speaking from a Dutch perspective – going back and forth between a strong “need to believe” and reality. This is the way the discussion on hydrogen is going in the Netherlands at the moment. It does not matter what your question is, the answer is hydrogen. Any questions that you ask about the current state of fundamentals, issues on electrolysis, or possibly on catalysis, and you are branded anti-hydrogen and called counter-productive. By repeating all day that something already works and will deliver on time, you take away the chance of not investing in the basic science around it. I think this is a worrisome development.

There is an extreme focus in member states, or at least some member states, on delivering by 2030. The longer term seems to be forgotten, and we are running the risk to make sub-optimal choices because of that focus. We are working on creating business models and making start-up businesses flourish. Member states are focusing their efforts on economic growth – or at least making sure economic growth remains – and protecting their industry. But who takes care of 2050? I feel this is what Europe has to do. We need to align and work together on the big research themes that we are going to take along to 2050. In terms of instruments, I very much agree with the interview with Mister Cañete, who said yesterday: ‘The fight against climate change requires collective action. Driving innovation and spreading the best practice quickly through a coordinated approach, and not member states working in splendid isolation.’ Negotiating the climate agreement at the moment means that we are thinking about scenarios in which the Netherlands should be an island, not the most interconnected electricity market in Europe. Right now, when it comes to coordinating and concerting energy research within the member states, some member states seem unable to organise a bible reading in a nunnery. Asking researchers to unite is definitely one way to go. This is one EERA and its members like NERA are dedicating their time to. But it is crucial that member states show leadership and set up structures to make sure that researchers cooperate and expertise is combined. The concept of bilateral and multilateral cooperation and the principles of the SET Implementation Plans need to be promoted by member states to create impact. I think now it is painstakingly slow.

I want to finish with stating that we need a lot of money. We are working all over the world on the same crucial issues, and there is no guarantee the money will ever come back, but it is an investment we need to make. It is just like state defence. Investing in low TRL levels is something we cannot trust companies only to work on. We will need the basic science. There is no shame to admit that we do not know which way we are going and how we are going on many issues. It does not mean science has failed, it means science is working on it. I want you to realise – and this is maybe something I have taken from my past in energy business – that most money in the energy transition right now is trapped in the old and in the obsolete. Closing plants and writing off investments is a choice that many countries cannot afford to make. So, thinking about investing wisely might be to help those plants and let old money convert in investment to make them part of the solution. In there, we will have two main companions struggling with the same: India and China.

Thank you very much.