Sustainable City solutions: a central pillar for the next phase of the EU energy transition?

Speakers: Sofianopoulos Dimitrios, Nielsen Dorthe, Joyce Adrian, Marijewycz Marco
Moderator: Belin Hughes

On the 20th of June, PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a debate on sustainable city solutions as a central pillar for the next phase of the EU energy transition. Mr Dimitrios Sofianopoulos, New Energy Technologies, Innovation and Clean Coal, European Commission, DG ENERG, Ms Dorthe Nielsen, Policy Director, Eurocities, Mr Adrian Joyce, Secretary General, European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroACE) and Mr Marco Marijewycz, Technology Policy & Modelling, E.ON were all present as speakers. The debate was moderated by Hughes Belin, freelance journalist.

Sustainable Cities WEB

The moderator introduced the speakers and asked them as a first focal point of discussion what challenges they are confronted with and what potentials they foresee with regard to the domain of sustainable cities.

Mr Sofianopoulos began by explaining how clean and new technologies can be applied to cities in relation to the European Commission’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), which addresses several clean energy challenges including the identification of the needs of the energy system as a whole and putting the citizens at the centre of such actions. Within this context, the question of “sustainable cities” has been identified as a key element, as urban areas are big consumers of energy in the EU. Mr Sofianopoulos added that the available funding instruments included in the Horizon 2020 (such as the ones on Smart Cities), create important opportunities to implement integrated energy solutions that can be applied to the local level, which combine the domains of energy, mobility and ICT. Given this formula, the Commission has aimed at creating a set of good examples and best practices especially at the local level, which should be able to be replicated. Consequently, the Commission’s speaker referred to the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, an initiative conceived to practically and conceptually develop the implementation of the Innovation Union Strategy by bringing stakeholders together to promote solutions that can be exchanged and applied across cities all around Europe. Although expectations have been fairly high, the speaker remarked that all actors should play their own part and actions and synergies of the national and private sectors should be ensured, as the EU alone is managing only one per cent of the EU budget and that only a small part of their budget is dedicated to clean energy solutions. Mr Sofianopoulos also highlighted the remarks made at the 2016 SET Plan Conference in Bratislava during which high-level innovation targets for the next decade were presented in a wide spectrum of clean energy technologies. Such targets will enable the achievement of the EU‘s ambitious energy and climate goals. The speaker added that the innovation targets were agreed by member states, which participated to the SET Plan Steering Group, and key stakeholders from both the research and the industry sector. He also revealed that a Working Group on “smart cities and communities” was created, as a follow-up action to implement the targets that have been set, with the participation of twelve member states that have identified the issue of sustainable cities as one of their major priorities.

Ms Nielsen opened with a general framework on the work of Eurocities, which consists of a network of large European cities comprising 180 members, with more than 250 thousand inhabitants from all across Europe. Firstly, she stated that cities are the key player in a clean energy transition given that they are both the engine of the national economy and the territory where policy decisions have the largest impact since two-thirds of the population in Europe live in urban areas. Ms Nielsen continued by stating that cities have demonstrated to be the most eager actors to implement the EU’s ambitious energy goal, as the example of Copenhagen, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2025, or Stockholm, which aims at being fossil free by 2050. Furthermore, she added, cities’ networks are mobilising and collaborating across Europe to become more energy efficient by working together to grow capacities, to exchange experiences and to identify good practices. In addition, she underlined that cities have the advantage of the proximity to the citizens, which allows local authorities to help citizens’ empowerment and ownership, an essential factor of success for a transition phase. An example of this process can be found in the city of Utrecht, where citizens were asked to write a new plan for the city together with the local authorities. This action resulted in raising the awareness of the local energy challenges, creating ownership as well as reaching out to the silent majority, who normally are indifferent to such policies. The speaker also remarked that one of the main challenges arising in the domain of “sustainable cities” is the fact that it is often difficult to implement innovative energy transition policy solutions in densely populated areas. However, Ms Nielsen stated that other important roles cities can play include the management of large portfolios of buildings that can be transformed, as well as the driving of the investments through public procurement. Examples of the increasing importance of the role of smart cities are shown by the Covenant of Mayors, the European innovation partnership on smart cities and communities, the SET-Plan as well as the Energy Union. With regard to the Energy Union, although a slightly stronger role for cities has been envisaged, the speaker remarked that there should be more involvement from local authorities in the revision and the implementation of the targets as uncoordinated governance risks slowing down the process of a transition to a low-carbon society.

Mr Joyce presented the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroACE), which represents companies that supply materials, equipment and products to create holistic and high-energy performance in existing and planned buildings. EuroACE’s work, the speaker explained, consists of trying to improve EU legislative policies for society at large. Mr Joyce also replied to a tailored question of the moderator concerning the definition of “sustainable city”. According to Mr Joyce, a sustainable city is a “liveable city”, which is comfortable and fulfils the needs of people for shelter, mobility, work and leisure. Liveability and quality of life are, in the opinion of the speaker, key elements and major challenges for the set up of vibrant sustainable cities. However, in order to achieve this setting, major works and renovations are necessary in European cities, not only in the domain of buildings, but also in the overall urban environment. Mr Joyce continued by explaining that a sustainable city is a place where the different systems interact together to make the life environment friendlier. As a result, he explained, mobility, energy supply, water supply and fresh air quality should be properly coordinated across the given territory. According to Mr Joyce, the primary method to achieve this goal is to intervene at the building level first and consequently at both a district and city level. This process points out also how the different levels of governance should interact together in a sympathetic way. As regards to conceiving a liveable system, the speaker’s approach focused on the question of the resilience of urban environments as a substantial part of a “sustainable city”. Since it is the best solution to face the consequences of climate change as the resilience of buildings brings quality and obliges architects and engineers to adopt long-term solutions. As a result, the superior quality of urban infrastructures makes them resistant to several different climate phenomena from heat waves to intense storms that are occurring at a more regular rate. The speaker concluded by stating that, if we assume that buildings are the basic structure of the city, they need to be at the centre of the work on urban sustainability.

Mr Marijewycz highlighted that in the recent years E.ON has mainly been focused on the role that the company can play in enabling a sustainable energy transition by helping cities to become more innovative within the domain of sustainability. In this regard, he argued that there are interesting trends driving the transformation of the energy system: primarily, the shift towards a decentralised energy production, which leads to the exploitation of local resources, the benefits of digitalisation and the evolution of the internet of things which fosters the creation of low-carbon urban environments as well as the development of energy storing technology. According to the speaker and by elaborating on from Mr Joyce and his personal experience, in order to create more sustainable cities, firstly, it is imperative to adopt a bottom-up approach, secondly, the given territory must take advantage of what is already in place, especially abandoned or underused resources and thirdly, it is necessary to take a systematic view of how all the infrastructural elements, including energy, contribute to transform the given environment by taking into account that urban spaces are continuing to grow. Within this context, the industry has a key role to play in enabling cities to take advantage of resources available and technology that can generate or save energy by acting as a partner in making the cities aware of the potential that the given city possesses. The speaker also emphasised that as a bottom-up approach is necessary, the process of transforming urban environments must be conducted in the most inclusive way possible. As an example, E.ON has been involved for ten years with the local authorities of Malmö to help them achieve a highly sustainable energy system with special regard to the renovation of the harbour. During this experience, the speaker added, it resulted that the technologies used many years ago are now less cost-effective, hence, the role of the industry to bring its technical expertise, as well as to partner with local authorities in order to co-create a vision and eventually enable access to various sources of investments and funding, most of which were offered by, inter alia, the European Commission.

A second focal point consisted of how to engage with citizens.

Ms Nielsen stated that Eurocities is currently working with a group of cities in an attempt to engage more with citizens which may allow for tackling more issues with fewer resources, while discovering new ways of implementing projects through the exploitation of the innovation potential, and through increasing citizen’s ownership. Ms Nielson used the example of Malaga to explain this, where a very deprived neighbourhood had to refurbish some parts of its building stock; by initiating a dialogue with the inhabitants of that area, the process of gaining trust helped set up a new refurbishment plan. In addition, some citizens were hired to help in the implementation of the refurbishment, while, at the same time, a continuous information flow on the development and the maintenance of the new system was put in place. It resulted that this process has created a stronger sense of community, citizens have come closer to the local authority and eventually the distrust between the local community and the local authority was reduced. Mr Sofianopoulos addressed the question by arguing that many provisions out of the initiatives that have been recently put forward by the European Commission are directly addressed to the citizens, and those are expected to bring about substantial change in the way that “sustainable cities” trends will perform in the future. Mr Sofianopoulos added that the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package, notably launched at the end of 2016, consists of many provisions that directly address citizens since it fosters the energy system decentralization; furthermore, citizens should be enabled to produce, sell and manage energy by becoming active members of the energy system, ultimately increasing citizens’ ownership of energy policies. Moreover, provisions regarding the energy communities are also included in order to enable local communities to manage the energy that they produce; a key factor in developing a micro energy system. The speaker also remarked that new services will need to be implemented, both for the main industry and for SMEs to liaise with the new actors of the energy system. According to Mr Marijewycz, the question of engaging with citizens is mainly giving an opportunity to local communities to develop local energy systems. In this regard, the industry is active in helping consumers to play their part. As an example, the speaker explained that both in Germany and the UK there is a battery product in the market to enable home owners to install solar panels on their roofs, store their power and, regulation permitted, sell it back to the grid and to the neighbours through to peer to peer market place. As an example for the future, the speaker told the audience that E.ON is currently engaged in a project of the European Commission called “InterFlex”, which has allowed the construction of a macro grid will enable a local community in Sweden to be 100% carbon neutral and the connected citizens of that grid are able to exchange power with each other via a peer to peer marketplace. Moreover, the speaker added, as the energy system is notably changing and with the role of utilities evolving at a rapid speed, the way the industry supports consumers is evolving as well. For these reasons E.ON focuses on addressing these changes by creating a market product that enables consumers to manage their power which they can use, sell or store. Mr Joyce, added that National Renovation Strategies, which EU’s member states are required to submit to the European Commission under the Energy Efficiency Directive, were firstly issued in 2014. He stated that they only listed existing initiatives and had very little relevance to citizens. Given this setting, a group of thirteen green buildings’ councils from across the EU gathered together and started a project called “Build Upon”, whose objective was to engage with a very broad range of stakeholders in order to give an input on making the second version of the strategies more relevant, workable and implementable. Until February 2017, the speaker explained, the project has engaged around two thousand different stakeholders; however it is still unknown whether it has had the impact that was expected concerning the renovation strategies. Related to this, Mr Joyce stated that in the building sector, nine times out of ten, if a solution for renovation is imposed on a community or a group, it is usually rejected; therefore, the engagement with stakeholders needs to take into high account the actual needs of citizens in order to be successful.

The other parts of the debate and the Q&A session covered the following issues: the question of financing; the possible examples of engaging with citizens; the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package issued by the European Commission regarding citizens’ involvement; the main elements that would help to make a breakthrough for sustainable solutions; how to evaluate a technological solution, the parameters that enable a sustainable city; a project for interconnected cities with regard to cooperation in transportation; waste management and energy; the reaction of citizens to the energy transition; the question of communicating the energy transition; the future of energy solutions from an industry perspective; the differences in energy policy implementation across EU member states.

Do you want to go further into the issues discussed in our debate? Check our list of selected sources which we have provided for you!

Towards an Integrated Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan: Accelerating the European Energy System Transformation, European Commission

Horizon 2020 – The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, European Commission

European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC)

Towards a transformed european energy system with the new research, innovation and competitiveness strategy, 30 November – 2 December 2016, Bratislava

Integrated Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan Progress in 2016, European Commission  Commission proposes new rules for consumer centred clean energy transition, European Commission

Case studies, Eurocities

Community Solutions, E.ON

5 European Cities that Worship the Green Goddess

Sustainability efforts examples, E.ON

E-Mobility for communities , E.ON