Low carbon: Public-private partnerships take up the challenge
Big challenges can encourage big solutions, and at the end of last year there was no challenge bigger than Europe’s response to the economic turmoil caused by the global credit crisis.
The European Union is betting the bank on innovation to move the continent forward – and has set aside €3.2 billion to get public–private partnerships (PPPs) off the ground in three areas identified as crucial for the future: smart cars, smart buildings and smart manufacturing.
Proposed as part of the EU’s economic recovery plan in December 2008, the initiatives – known as “Green Cars”, “Energy-efficient Buildings” and “Factories of the Future” – aim to help make industry more competitive by developing innovative technologies and moving towards greener, more sustainable practices.
“We wanted to focus on areas where we think they were hit hard by the economic crisis and which have a clear potential to make breakthroughs in technologies which would lead towards a greener economy,” said the EU’s Research Commissioner at the time, Janez Potocnik.
One of the aims of the €3.2 billion plan is to encourage the automotive, construction and manufacturing industries to invest in long-term research even though they are faced with short-term economic difficulties. As Potocnik’s spokeswoman Catherine Ray said, “The sooner companies invest in clean technologies, the more competitive they will be.”
The calls for proposals were launched on 30 July, with deadlines set for 3 November for most topics and 14 January for some of the Green Cars initiative. The first of the research projects should start in the first half of next year.
Each successful proposal will typically receive between €4 million and €10 million of public money. On top of that, the companies must invest between 50 percent of the cost of their research in the project, except for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which only need to invest 25 per cent.
“The sooner companies invest in clean technologies, the more competitive they will be.” - Janez Potočnik, European Commissionerfor Science and Research
“What we want is the competitiveness of industry in an environmentally responsible way,” Herbert von Bose, the director of industrial technologies at the European Commission’s directorate-general for research, said in an interview for Futures.
The PPP with perhaps the greatest potential for CO2 savings is construction because it is so energy intensive, von Bose said. Taking into account their whole life cycle, houses and buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of the EU’s total energy use and are the region’s main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The main priorities of the Energy-efficient Buildings initiative include developing information and communication technologies (ICT) for “smart” buildings, integrating renewable energy systems into these buildings, as well as using nanotechnologies, new materials, components, systems and construction processes and integrating them into energy-efficient buildings. The materials used, how energy is managed and the internal building layout all need to be considered.
ICT is crucial
For example, in buildings and spaces of public use, such as a sports stadium, shopping mall or university campus, ICT-related technologies are crucial to improve energy efficiency, said another Commission official.
“It’s not only new buildings,” the official said. “It’s also the older ones. There are 160 million buildings in Europe that need to increase their efficiency.” Retrofitting is therefore key, he said.
The ways in which factories can contribute to a low-carbon economy are perhaps less visible, but nonetheless extremely important. The whole life cycle of a product needs to be taken into account: the raw materials used, the production process, the waste and knowing how the product can be recycled at the end of its life.
Four sub-areas have been identified as key: sustainable manufacturing; ICT-enabled intelligent manufacturing; high-performance manufacturing; and exploiting new materials through manufacturing. Sustainable manufacturing includes the development of a new eco-factory model, with new production processes that integrate innovative energy-efficient technologies. ICT will contribute by improving the efficiency, adaptability and sustainability of manufacturing systems, for example by using robotics to help customise processes or simulation and modelling to better understand and design manufacturing systems and improve products’ life cycle management.
Competitive manufacturing is “key” to creating jobs in Europe and bringing production back to Europe, von Bose said.
The Factories of the Future initiative aims to help the more than 25 different sectors that make up Europe’s manufacturing industry, ranging from high-tech to chemicals to textiles. So the focus is on enabling technologies that have a wide impact across several sectors.
Under the Green Cars initiative, the calls for proposals launched this year largely concentrate on the electrification of road transport. “There are still some steps to go” in this area, von Bose said. There needs to be a “new thinking” between car manufacturers and the electricity grid suppliers, with these two sectors working together to develop new possibilities, he said.
In 2005, 19 per cent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and 28 per cent of CO2 emissions were linked to the transport sector. And more than 90 per cent of all EU transport emissions are caused by road transport, according to the Commission. By focusing attention on developing new and sustainable forms of road transport, the aim is make road transport greener and help the EU achieve emission reduction targets.
For all three of the initiatives, industry is “in the driving seat”, von Bose said. Being part of the EU’s economic recovery plan, the public–private partnerships aim to help struggling industries get back on their feet. “If we can set an example of how industry can deal with environment questions in a responsible way and how industry can help solve environmental problems, that’s very positive,” said von Bose.
Author: Anna Jeckinson