Seminar on renewable energy transition in sparsely populated areas during the European Week of Regions and Cities 2019

As part of the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC) 2019 a seminar was arranged by the Regional Partnership of the Northern Sparsely Populated Areas (NSPA) and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The session addressed rural and sparsely populated areas as both forerunners in the supply of renewable energy and as regions with large needs in infrastructure for renewable energy and clean mobility.

The panellists presented several concrete examples of projects within renewable energy supply and clean mobility in rural and sparsely populated areas, focusing on how to overcome the infrastructure challenges. The discussions during the seminar highlighted the fact that remoted rural areas, apart from providing abundant natural resources and hosting heavy industries, are also a place for very innovative people. Several proposals were presented on how to adapt the Cohesion Policy in 2021-2027 to better enable these regions to contribute to a climate-neutral Europe.

For the forth year in a row the NSPA network partnered up with Highlands and Islands of Scotland during the EWRC. The interest for the seminar held at the Committee of Regions in Brussels was great with over one hundred registered participants. 

The seminar was opened by Mr.  Thomas Andersson, President of Region Jämtland Härjedalen, who emphasized the importance for regions with similar challenges to learn from each other. He then handed over to Ms Linda Stewart, the moderator of the seminar. 

The first speaker was the Swedish Member of European Parliament Mr. Erik Bergkvist, who introduced the theme of sustainable energy transition from a broad perspective. Mr Bergkvist stressed the importance of individuals on local, regional, national and EU level to expand their views regarding the northern sparsely populated areas and see to the opportunities for sustainable development and energy transition in the regions. 

- We are not a museum, people do not want to live in a museum. But neither are we a cupboard where people can come and pick whatever resources they want, said Mr Bergkvist.

Ms. Åsa Ågren Wikström,  Deputy President of the Committee of Regional Development in Region Västerbotten, underlined the importance of a functional and sustainable infrastructure and highlighted the fact that 90 % of the iron ore that the EU uses comes from northern Sweden, making it crucial for the EU to invest in rail infrastructure in sparsely populated regions.

- Do what you can with the best you have, Ms Ågren Wikström said and emphasized the importance of cross-border cooperation, exemplifying with projects such as Midway Alignment - a ferry between Vaasa and Umeå and the Bothnian Corridor. She underlined that the sparsely populated areas need investments from the EU to boost an economic development in the regions and that synergies between cohesion policy and transport policy are vital to success in these kinds of regions. 

Mr. Johannes Vallivaara,  CEO of ProAgria Lapland and Cluster Manager of the Arctic Smartness Rural cluster,described the role of the cluster model in developing the energy sector in Lapland in Finland. The cluster's mission is to stop capital outflow from rural areas and to create new, innovative business opportunities. The cluster connects different actors and stakeholders from municipalities, companies, and project managers to individuals, and facilitates cooperation. To solve problems, such as the lack of funding, that individual farmers often face, a regional energy production company has been established in Lapland to invest in biogas plants at farms, Mr Vallivaara explained, resulting in local raw material owners also being the beneficiaries. 

- I always say to people in rural areas: you have all the potential, you have all the resources you need to create successful business", Mr Valivaara said as a conclusion.

Dr. Gary Campbell,  Vice Principle at the University of the Scottish Highlands and Islands (UHI)  presented sustainable aviation solutions and described how the UHI is working with industry, the airport authorities and other partners in the Highlands and Islands regions to demonstrate why Scotland is a good location for the testing and early roll-out of electric aviation solutions.   

Dr. Campbell highlighted a number of key issues the Highlands and Islands are facing and explained UHI's unique role to solve challenges. The regions of Highlands and Islands are facing underemployment, depopulation (particularly of young people), and low productivity of the region compared to the rest of Scotland. But with the university's 13 campuses, numerous smaller learning centres and the innovative utilisation of technology and possibilities, UHI allows people to gain high-level qualifications without having to leave their home area. With climate change high on the agenda, advances in technology, a fluctuating oil price and a greater demand for connectivity, there has never been a more critical time for UHI to explore the possibilities electric aircraft offer in terms of cheaper and more environmentally friendly air travel. This could make sparsely populated regions far more accessible, transforming them from peripheral to central. 

Mr. Jørgen Holten Jørgensen,  Head of administration in Berlevåg municipality in Norway,  presented a project in Berlevåg for sustainable energy transition and new innovations regarding hydrogen gas. With the opening of the northern sea route and the need for a global shift towards greener energy sources, the municipality of Berlevåg saw a potential for contributing to the energy transition. Berlevåg is endowed with very windy conditions ideal for wind turbines. Raggovidda wind farm was established consisting of 15 wind turbines the wind farm produces 3 MWs each - 45 MW in total. An under-dimensioned electric grid, however, made it impossible to utilise the full potential of the windfarm. The solution was the idea of using the extra power for hydrogen production. Instead of replacing the whole electric grid of the village, the wind turbines are planned to be connected to the hydrogen factory. The idea of the hydrogen factory is now being materialised with the help of research institutes, the energy sector and financing from the EU. 

During the panel debate one of the questions was about barriers for energy transition in the sparsely populated areas. 

Mr.  Jørgensen,  answered that technology was an obvious obstacle as well as difficulty finding finance. Mr. Bergkvist  posed the question to the rest of the panel if the EU structural funds was working in an efficient way to get over the barriers of financing. Dr. Campbell  answered that the funds where good but has potential to be even more efficient. Mr. Vallivaara  put forth that a barrier for transition and innovation in the north is the problem with attitude, a lot of people do not see the opportunities to live and work in the northern sparsely populated areas. To this problem Ms. Ågren Wikström  responded that communication must be better and more clearly show that there truly are opportunities to live and thrive in the north. Mr. Bergkvist  also addressed the question of attitude and responded that there will always be barriers, but the largest barrier is ourselves. Another way to overcome some of the barriers is to have a good structure in place for projects, as according to Mr.  Jørgensen "Fishermen are not interested in writing EU applications".

The last question asked from the audience was what the panelists had learned from each other during the seminar and what they would bring back home. Ms. Ågren Wikström  answered that her role as a politician is to help to foster innovation, and to hear about the barriers has helped her to better understand what she can do, to which Mr. Bergkvist  agreed that he was happy learning about the concrete projects and that it is up to him as a politician to continue to boost these. Dr Campbell  said having learned about a wider range of application of his work with sustainable aviation such as in car batteries. Mr.  Jørgensen  put forth that he was excited about all the projects in the panel that he previously had not heard about. He also pointed out that the best things policymakers can do is to continue to invest in infrastructure and to boost sustainable development with tax policy. Mr. Vallivaara  answered that he had learned how different projects adapt to different surroundings and that it was inspiring to see that each region could fulfill its potential.

Have a look at the posters with projects focusing on renewable energy transition, in the regions  of Northern Sparsely Populated Areas (NSPA) and Scottish Highlands and Islands, showned after the seminar during the reception:

North East Finland:

North Norway:
Clean Energy for Islands
Solarcharhe 2020

North Sweden:
North Sweden Cleantech
TreePower & LTU Green Fuels Biojet Initiative 

Mid Sweden:
Sustainable travels

UHI Energy Innovation Service
Net-Zero Aviataion

06 Nov 2019