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Green funding for blue sky thinking

low carbon

The European Commission is throwing its weight and more importantly its wallet behind a bid to step up low-carbon energy research, writes Carmen Paun.

This year the European Commission (EC) has ring-fenced €359 million ($485 million) for research projects that promote low-carbon energy technologies – the largest sum of money made available by the EU’s research programmes, previously called ‘Framework Programmes’.

The competition money comes from the new European Union (EU) research funding programme, Horizon 2020, which has an overall budget of €80 billion to distribute between this year and 2020. And Brussels has also widened the application process to encourage a large and broad number of participants.

Rather than building on what applicants already know, Horizon 2020 wants to focus on challenges which may require multi-disciplinary responses. “We are defining the problem and are asking participants to give us the best solution,” EU Research Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn said in a press briefing in Brussels.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger: Horizon 2020 has €80 billion to distribute
Credit: EC

Through the challenges posed to the power industry, research institutes, academia and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Brussels wants to support Europe’s transition to low-carbon energy systems.

It wants H2020 to find projects that span the whole innovation process – from research and development to commercialization. The challenges also aim to respond to issues related to standardization, as well as the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid.

This approach has been appreciated by the power sector. Julia Eichhorst of European electricity industry association Eurelectric welcomed “the fact that the first calls under Horizon 2020 take a comprehensive look at – and dedicate sufficient funding to – the full innovation value chain, from inception to demonstration and market uptake”.

According to the EC’s directorate general for research, the main power priorities in Horizon 2020 are the development and demonstration of renewable energy technologies for electricity generation; their integration into the power system; the electricity grid, including storage; carbon dioxide (CO2) capture, transport, storage and re-use; and flexible and efficient fossil fuel power plants.

Brussels has made millions of euros worth of funding available to solar projects
Credit: QCells

“Horizon 2020 is split into three major priorities, with the third point, ‘societal challenges’, receiving the lion’s share,” explains Eichhorst, who adds that “secure, clean and efficient energy”, which addresses most of the funding opportunities related to power, has an allocated budget of roughly €16 billion for 2014-20.

“Other points relevant for our sector cover green transport and climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials”, she continues, noting that projects spanning energy, transport and climate change have in the past proved difficult to co-ordinate. “The Commission therefore needs to ensure full co-ordination and coherence of its proposed points in order to minimize the risk of duplication,” she adds.

Solar sums

There are different sums of funding available for projects, depending on the type of technology involved, with the first deadlines for applications having been set for April.

Projects that could deliver highly-efficient, novel photovoltaics (PV) concepts based on advanced materials and processes can obtain between €3 million and €6 million, the same sum that is available to projects that try to develop very low-cost PV cells and modules.

The development of inorganic thin-film technologies that achieve module efficiencies higher than 12-16 per cent can receive between €5-20 million, while projects that aim to increase the efficiency of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants – while also reducing their construction, operation and maintenance costs – can obtain between €3 million and €6 million.

Between €5-20 million is available for those applications that can demonstrate solutions that would make CSP plants able to produce predictable power and be flexible enough to respond to demands from the grid.

The EC approach to Horizon 2020 is to present problems and ask the industry for solutions
Credit: EC

Paolo Basso, policy officer at the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), told Power Engineering International: “Progress is needed in the following areas: performance enhancement and energy cost reduction; quality assurance, long-term reliability and sustainability; and electricity system integration.”

Basso says it is too early to evaluate how Horizon 2020 will work and deliver the results it aims for, but he adds that so far the signs are positive, not least because Horizon 2020 is better than the EU’s previous funding programme because it has “an increased budget available for energy, a bigger focus on innovation and close-to-market activities, simplified procedures and a limited time-to-grant”.

Wind energy challenges are also addressed in the Horizon 2020 funding opportunities.

Applications for projects that could deliver control systems and strategies for new and large onshore and offshore wind farms, as well as “new innovative substructure concepts, including floating platforms, to reduce production, installation, operation and maintenance costs for water depths of more than 50 metres” are sought by 1 April, and each project granted funding could receive €3 million to €6 million.

According to the EC, there is a need to demonstrate and test new nacelle and rotor prototypes with a significant lower mass and material intensity. Projects which aim to do this could each receive between €5 million and €20 million.

Putting money into turbine development is a good idea, according to Jacopo Moccia, head of Political Affairs at the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), as turbines need to be adapted to more complicated conditions like cold climates or complex terrains.

“Larger parts of Europe’s seas will also be exploitable economically by developing deep offshore solutions, including floating systems,” he says, adding that wind turbines can also be increasingly better connected to the electricity grid.

Even so, renewables do not seem to be as important for the EU as they used to be in the previous research programme, according to Moccia. “The share of the EU money dedicated to funding the research and development [of renewables] has shrunk from about 40 per cent to 25 per cent [of available energy research funding] and will reach about €1.35 billion,” he explains.

EC Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard: Climate action forms part of Horizon 2020
Credit: EC

Brussels has also designed calls for projects that could deliver improved turbines for sustainable hydropower able to handle a wider range of loads and thus increase power output. This Horizon 2020 call will provide €3 million to €6 million to projects that can come up with these turbines in the near future.

The development of ocean energy components that could withstand harsh conditions will also be funded, as well as projects that can create better understanding about the installation, operation and decommissioning costs of ocean energy equipment.

Funding options are also available for initiatives involving renewable heating and cooling, and sustainable geothermal power, as well as for projects that would help fossil fuel-power plants shift their role from providing baseload power to fluctuating back-up power for renewable energy sources. These projects stand to receive funding ranging from between €3 million-€6 million per project.

Energy storage is one of the main priorities of Europe’s transition to low-carbon energy, and funding is available for next-generation technologies that respond to this challenge. Storage technologies of all sizes relevant to energy applications and all types of locations are needed, with funding of between €6 and €9 million per project up for grabs.

Meanwhile, €20-25 million per project is available for large-scale energy storage project proposals, although this category of funding is mostly focused on storage systems that have been already technologically validated in a relevant environment.

An EC document notes: “Integrated power-to-gas concepts allowing electricity storage through the production of synthetic gas to be stored in the gas grid in the form of synthetic/green methane are eligible.”

Projects integrating and validating solutions to grid challenges, concentrating on field demonstrations of system integration and up-scaling at industrial scale, will also be able to draw European money from Horizon 2020, with Brussels ready to award between €12-15 million to each successful project.

Activities helping deploy meshed off-shore grids with full interoperability in Europe can obtain €30-€40 million in funding. To do so, they would have to promote the use of innovative components within interoperable meshed off-shore high-voltage direct current (HVDC) network technologies, services and tools architectures. Since “remote locations require new grid technologies to transport electricity over longer distances, a key technology will be HVDC for which full-scale demonstrators need to be developed”, notes Moccia.

To succeed in applications, power companies will need to become part of international partnerships alongside other companies, research institutes, academia and even NGOs.

Most of the calls require research consortia with at least three legal entities, each established in different countries. While each call will set specific requirements, there is an overarching grant award criteria taking into account the excellence of the proposal, its impact and the likely quality and efficiency of implementation.

Except for projects focusing on activities close to market, most other projects awarded funding under Horizon 2020 will see 100 per cent of their costs covered. Applicants should be informed within a maximum of eight months from submitting applications if they have been successful, according to an EU official. There will also be fewer audits on projects than in the past, the same source says. “We will be focusing more on where the real risks are,” he adds.

Carmen Paun is a Brussels-based freelance journalist, specializing in European regulation.

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