Making clean renewable energy happen

Article Published 29 Aug 2017 Last modified 21 Sep 2017
10 min read
Investing in clean energy must go hand in hand with energy efficiency and energy savings. Innovative solutions can fundamentally change the way we produce, store, transport and use energy. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy might affect communities dependent on fossil fuels in the short run. With targeted policies and investments in new professional skills, clean energy can provide new economic opportunities.

©Nikolaos Kalkounos, Picture2050 /EEA

Energy in the form in which it is extracted almost always needs to be transformed into a fuel suitable for its intended use. For example, wind energy or solar energy need to be converted into electricity before we can use them. Similarly, the crude oil extracted from the ground is transformed into gasoline and diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, liquefied petroleum gas, electricity, etc., before it can be used in aeroplanes, cars and homes.

A part of this initial potential energy is lost in the transformation process. Even with crude oil, which has a higher energy density ([1]) than most conventional fuels, only around 20 % of this potential can be transformed into electricity.

Energy efficiency: tackling energy loss is essential

Power plants often use heat obtained by burning a primary fuel, such as coal, to generate electricity. The basic aspects of this process are very similar to those of rudimentary steam engines. Water is boiled to create steam and expands as it changes to gas, which in turn spins turbines. This mechanical movement (mechanical energy) is then harvested as electricity. However, a non-negligible part of the input fuel is lost as waste heat in transformation. In a similar way to laptops, cars or many other electronic devices, power plants generate heat when operating and have cooling systems to avoid the risk of overheating.

Power plants or oil refineries need energy to run the transformation process, as well as for their daily operational activity. Unsurprisingly, cooling systems (e.g. fans in computers) also require energy to operate. In power plants, cooling systems may also release heat — most frequently in the form of warmer water and air — back to nature.

This type of inefficiency — energy loss or heat waste —not only occurs when transforming energy from one form into another. Every day, when we heat our homes, drive our cars or cook our food, in fact almost every time we use energy, we waste a part of it. For example, a fossil-fuel-powered car uses only around 20 % of its fuel for moving the vehicle, while around 60 % is lost as heat from the engine. Buildings account for 40 % of total energy consumption in the EU and about 75 % are energy inefficient ([2]). Energy inefficiency means that we waste a non-negligible share of our resources, including money, while we pollute the environment more than is necessary. How can this loss be prevented? How can we increase energy efficiency? Can we get more out of the same amount of energy?

Technology and policy can help to minimise some of the energy losses. For example, an energy-efficient light bulb uses about 25-80 % less energy than a traditional incandescent one and can potentially last 3-25 times longer. Some power plants (in a process known as co-generation or combined heat and power) capture the heat that would otherwise be wasted and use it to provide district heating and cooling services to local communities. Likewise, retrofitting old buildings with modern insulation can reduce energy consumption and energy bills.

Storing and transporting energy

In some cases, the heat that would normally be lost might be put to other uses. The heat that the human body generates might not be the first source of energy that comes to mind, but even this heat can be harvested and turned into usable energy. Around 250 000 commuters rush through the central train station in Stockholm every day. Instead of ventilating it away, the excess heat is captured and used to heat water, which then provides heating to an office building on the other side of the road, lowering the building’s energy bills during the cold Swedish winters.

Such innovative approaches will also be essential for enabling clean energy storage and transport at the scale needed. Fossil fuels are relatively easy to store and transport. Once extracted, oil can be used at any time. It can be moved around within existing networks and is accessible through an extensive and well-established infrastructure. This is not always the case with renewable energy, but, with innovation, it can be. Capturing solar energy during summer months and storing it in the form of warm water in underground reservoirs for use in winter months could provide enough heat for entire communities. In addition, with more efficient batteries that are able to store more power and an extensive recharging infrastructure, long-haul road transport could, in theory, be entirely electric.

Some electric transport solutions can also go beyond batteries with large energy storage capacities. On certain public transport routes, Graz, Austria, and Sofia, Bulgaria, are already experimenting with electric buses, which have lighter batteries that charge faster. After charging for 30 seconds while passengers get on and off, such buses are ready to drive for another 5 kilometres until the next stop equipped with a charging station.

Inspiring innovation on the way

We need abundant energy to power machines and heat our homes but this energy does not necessarily need to come from fossil fuels. Could we capture more of the sun’s energy? Solar panels contain photovoltaic cells, which transform a part of solar radiation into electricity. In recent years, technological developments have enabled photovoltaic cells to capture an increasing share of this raw solar energy at lower costs. The larger the area of a panel, the more electricity it produces. Dotting the whole landscape with solar panels might raise concerns over visual pollution in local communities or prevent the land from being used for other purposes. What if these panels were to become an invisible part of our daily lives?

A research project funded by the EU research programmes explores exactly that. The Fluidglass project aims to turn windows into invisible solar energy collectors. The project involves inserting a thin layer of water enriched with nanoparticles between glass layers. The nanoparticles would capture solar energy and turn it into electricity that could be used in the building. The nanoparticles would also filter the light — keeping the room temperature pleasant during hot weather. According to the project team, the potential energy savings could amount to 50-70 % for retrofitted buildings and to 30 % for new constructions already designed to use less energy.

This research project is just one among many initiatives across Europe coming up with solutions and improvements in renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy savings issues. The overall potential of these innovations, in terms of economic growth and unlimited clean energy, is enormous. The next step is to facilitate their uptake. Public authorities, investors, consumers and different actors active in key sectors (e.g. the construction sector) will need to play key roles in their widespread uptake.

The European Investment Bank is one of the actors providing much-needed finance. One of the untapped sources of natural and clean energy sources is wave energy. Arguably, wave energy can meet at least 10 % of global energy needs. A Finnish company has been developing underwater panels to convert the power of ocean waves into electricity. A panel installed off the coast of Portugal can meet the electricity needs of 440 homes. As well as supporting many other niche solutions, the European Investment Bank has provided loans to support the wider uptake of this technology.

From coal to solar: investing in new professional skills

Lack of acceptance by the local community might be one of the obstacles on the path towards clean energy. Some communities are concerned about visual pollution as well as noise pollution. Solar panels and wind turbines scattered across the landscape might be perceived as aesthetically out of place in an idyllic rural landscape. Some of these concerns might be addressed by better planning and involving the local communities when deciding on the location of wind farms. A more fundamental challenge, however, is that of the jobs, incomes and quality of life that are provided by steady incomes. Shutting down one sector, such as coal production, without creating new economic opportunities can raise the local unemployment rate. Understandably, a town dependent on coal production is very likely to be cautious when embracing fundamental changes to the local economy. However, despite the magnitude of the task, this kind of economic transformation is possible and some front runners are leading the way.

Following the discovery of coal in the Ruhr region in Germany in 1840, Gelsenkirchen became one of the most important coal mining towns in Europe. For more than 100 years, the town was shaped by coal production and, later, oil refining. Today, there are no miners in Gelsenkirchen. Yet, it is still an energy town. To tackle decades-long high unemployment and the phasing-out of coal production, the town actively embraced and supported innovation in clean technologies. It aspires to become the solar technology centre of Germany, with a highly skilled work force, and has been attracting not only other clean energy industries, but also the finance and service sectors. Once dependent on fossil fuels, the members of the local community have now become ardent advocates and users of clean energy.

Shifting the workforce from one sector to others is not easy. Each job requires a specific set of skills and knowledge. Learning new skills requires time and, almost always, financial resources. Offering training opportunities to those affected can help reduce the social costs of this type of socio-economic transition. Similarly, reducing the economic dependence on a single sector by fostering a wide array of activities can help the local economy to grow. For these changes to be effective, they need to be implemented early and carried out over a period of time. For example, the hiring rate needs to be lowered smoothly to avoid major shocks to the communities dependent on coal, while the educational system — vocational training, in particular — needs to be shaped in a way that will guide new jobseekers towards the new sectors and away from mining.


Close up: EU policies for clean energy

Energy savings and energy efficiency are key components of the European Union energy and climate policies. Given that fossil fuel combustion and climate change are closely interlinked, any reduction in overall fossil fuel consumption will lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the EU’s climate goals. In November 2016, the European Commission proposed an extensive legislative package on clean energy. The package aims to not only speed up the EU’s move towards clean energy, but also create jobs by boosting the economic sectors contributing to Europe’s energy transition.
The legislative package puts energy efficiency first and proposes a binding target of 30 % at EU level by 2030. It also outlines objectives on renewables and empowering consumers. More precisely, by 2030, half of Europe’s electricity should come from renewable sources and, by 2050, electricity production should be entirely carbon-free. Similarly, consumers should have more control of their energy choices and have more information on consumption and costs.
The EU supports the transition to clean energy through various tools and policies. The Energy Union is one of the 10 current political priorities of the European Commission, which in turn are equally supported by other overarching policies, including those on the Circular Economy, the Skills Agenda and Innovation. This political commitment is supported by EU funds, including allocations under the European Fund for Strategic Investments, the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund.

Measures on the ground

A combination of measures has also been put in place to turn EU policy targets into reality, supporting research, investment and uptake of clean energy. Some of these EU measures, such as the EU Directive on Energy Performance of Buildings or the EU Strategy on Low-Emission Mobility, target key sectors. The EU has also adopted measures addressing key targets such as energy efficiency and facilitating investments and research, including the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Initiative on Smart Finance for Smart Buildings.
These policies and efforts do pay off. For example, the EU Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Frameworks are estimated to save 175 Mtoe per year in primary energy by 2020 — more than the annual primary energy consumption of Italy. In other words, thanks to these two EU frameworks alone, Europeans are expected to save almost EUR 500 per household every year on their energy bills. In addition to creating extra revenue and jobs, the frameworks also contribute to energy security by reducing energy imports by the equivalent of 1 300 million barrels of oil each year. This means avoiding 320 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year — a significant contribution towards the EU’s climate goals.
Clearer energy efficiency labels on household appliances are only a small part of the story. Such legislative frameworks are part of the EU’s larger circular economy objectives, which strive for a more efficient use of all resources throughout the European economy. The way we design products, cities and buildings should facilitate the lowering of resource inputs, including energy, for the same or increased outputs or benefits. Eco-design should also make it easier to disassemble products to allow the re-use of different components. In this context, Europe would, in fact, save energy as a resource input, as its economy becomes increasingly resource efficient. For example, by saving water and using it more efficiently, Europe would also save the energy used in its abstraction, transport, treatment, etc. According to a study by the European Commission, Europe could save energy equivalent to between 2 % and 5 % of its total primary energy consumption simply by using water more efficiently.


([1])            Energy density is the amount of energy per unit volume.

([2])            Estimates from the impact assessment for the amendment of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

Preventing energy loss


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