Europe's energy funding 'unbalanced'

10 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1099
Europe's energy funding 'unbalanced'

International Energy Agency calls for more funds for non-nuclear technologies in Europe.

     The ITER experimental reactor may prove that fusion is a viable energy source — but not soon enough to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to EU targets in the next few decades.
     The European budget for fusion research is "seriously flawed", and more funds should be shifted instead towards non-nuclear energy fields, according to the leading intergovernmental advisory body on energy policy.
     In its first review of the European Commission's energy policy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) also says that current European funding for energy research in all fields is insufficient.
     European funding for research is distributed through the framework programme. The current programme (FP7) runs from 2007 to 2013, and allocates just over €5.1 billion for energy research. By contrast, Europe plans to spend €9.05 billion on information and communication technologies and €6.1 billion on health research.
     The IEA review, published on 4 September, says that it is "questionable" whether current funding levels for energy research are "commensurate with the ambitions of the commission in the energy field". It calls on the commission to redirect more funding to energy research and development (R&D) during the lifetime of the FP7 programme.
     Simon Watson, acting director of the centre for renewable energy systems and technology at Loughborough University, UK, agrees that "the balance of funding does seem strange given the importance of energy research".
Not mature
     Funding for fusion research is singled out by the report as a "potentially serious flaw". The IEA recommends that the commission act with "urgency" to shift investment away from fusion research into other forms of energy as, it says, developments in fusion will not mature in time to help meet the EU target of obtaining 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
     "The nuclear research portion of the EU funding is providing funding for nuclear fusion R&D on a level that is almost equivalent to the total non-nuclear energy funding," the review says. "Given that it is impossible for nuclear fusion to contribute to the EU's policy aims for low carbon energy supply by 2020, and unlikely that it will do so by 2050, this choice in the allocation of funds is difficult to understand, and the commission should consider reallocating funds from this R&D area at the earliest opportunity."
     But a spokeswoman for Janez Potocnik, the European Commission's research commissioner, says that in light of the long and complicated negotiations between member states, the EU parliament and the European Commission that were required to set the research budget, it is very unlikely that any changes will be made to funding levels in the existing framework programme.
     Robin Grimes of Imperial College London, who is principal investigator on a cross-UK university nuclear research programme, disagrees that funding should shift away from fusion research.
     "I am surprised they say that some funding should be directed away from fusion. The technology is a long way off, but if we could make it an economic reality then it would make a huge difference to carbon emission levels. Because the technology is not yet proven, industry will not invest it in so it is only places such as the European Commission that can put strategic investment in this research area," he says.
Dramatic plans
     The IEA review will inform current negotiations on the commission's proposals for how to meet Europe's energy and climate-change targets. The detailed proposals set out at the beginning of 2008 include dramatic rises in member states' use of renewable energy, and reforms of the Emissions Trading System that impose an EU-wide cap on carbon emissions.
     The review also bolsters the commission's call for member states and industry to provide more funding for green technologies as part of its Strategic Energy Technology Plan — a new energy research agenda for Europe.