The Background of UNI-SET

The EU Energy Challenge

One of the goals of the European Union is to create a low-carbon society within the next decades, including a 40% cut of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a 27% reduction of energy use and a 27% share of renewable energy in the energy mix by 2030. By the year 2050, the EU aims to reduce its GHG emissions by 80%-95%compared to 1990 levels (COM(2011)885). The European Commission, under President Jean-Claude Juncker, has stressed its ambition to be the world’s “number one in renewable energy and leading the fight against global warming” with its high priority for the realisation of the European Energy Union.

These far-reaching goals require a transformation of the entire energy system and a paradigm shift using new and yet-to-be-developed technological solutions. This includes solutions to improve energy-efficiency, to ensure a clean and secure energy supply, and to enable the optimal inter-connection and integration of the different energy production and consumption points, in view of the development of an integrated European energy system. “Significant efforts in technical innovation and investment” (COM(2010)639) are therefore needed to make these technological solutions affordable, cost-effective and competitive.

In order to “accelerate the development and deployment of cost-effective low carbon technologies” (COM(2007)723, see also COM(2009)519), the European Commission formulated the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) as the cornerstone of a coherent European energy technology policy. An Integrated Roadmap was also developed to define the actions to be taken to implement the SET-Plan and move towards a low-carbon society. The SET-Plan Integrated Roadmap and Action Plan includes actions mostly to boost technological advancements, but also actions to remove institutional, behavioural and financial barriers such as increasing the engagement of all energy stakeholders concerned in policymaking, mobilising the consumers, developing new professional competences and skills, and lever in additional funding.

The way to move forward with the Energy Union is spelled out in European Commission’s ‘Framework Strategy for a Resilient Energy Union with a Forward-Looking Climate’ (COM(2015)80). The strategy puts “citizens at its core” and emphasises the need to develop a “forward-looking, energy and climate-related R&I strategy”. The 15 action points listed in the communication include the development of new technologies, the utilisation of new financial, legislative and policy instruments and the engagement of consumers.

The Human Resource Challenge within the Low-Carbon Energy Sector

Moving towards a low-carbon society, a process known as the ‘energy transition’, creates demand for new and well-educated professionals in the energy sector, as well as for an upgrade of the competencies and skills of professionals already employed in the field. The International Energy Agency (IEA, 2010), the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2011) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA, 2010), identified education and training as critical obstacles to the near-term development and deployment of renewable energy on a larger scale and point out that cooperating with the private sector to develop curricula and educational contents is vital to meet the skills required by the energy sector. In addition, the European Commission (COM(2015)80) stresses the potential of “an innovation-driven transition […] for growth and jobs and that business models or job profiles will have to adjust”.

Quantitatively, the SET-Plan Education & Training Roadmap quote estimated that an additional five million people will be employed in the European energy sector by 2020, and another 6.3 million people between 2020 and 2030. Researchers, engineers and technicians are to take the lead in implementing the SET-Plan and Energy Union. However, to secure the move towards a low-carbon society, Europe also needs capable and qualified professionals from other scientific fields, such as management, finance and economics, law and social sciences.

Universities in the SET-Plan

European universities are strategically important to the SET-Plan and Energy Union process as they are major actors in research and innovation, and the main source for highly educated professionals and graduates needed in the energy sector. The ‘energy transition’ is a grand challenge that requires collaboration between professionals with diverse backgrounds and expertise in the energy system, the energy sector and other societal aspects of the ‘energy transition’. It calls therefore for a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach in the development of educational and research programmes.

The SET-Plan Education & Training Roadmap highlighted the need to equip graduates with interdisciplinary skills. It reckons that university programmes should combine technical knowledge with management, entrepreneurial and communication skills, as well as with critical thinking and problem solving competences. It also emphasised the need for a “more responsive education system” that allows curricula development based on the skills requirements of the energy sector stakeholders and employers, facilitates knowledge exchange across Europe and enhances the mobility of university students and teaching and research staff.

To respond to the labour needs of the continually evolving and expanding European energy market, European universities need to strengthen multidisciplinary and intra-European cooperation, upgrade existing educational and research programmes and create new ones. It is, therefore, essential to build platforms that allow universities to identify synergies and common research and educational interests in the thematic areas of the SET-Plan. Additionally, it is important to identify and specify the knowledge, skills, competences and, generally, the professional profiles required by energy sector stakeholders and employers active in the SET-Plan.

UNI-SET and the European Platform of Universities in Energy Research & Education

The European Platform of Universities in Energy Research & Education (EUA-EPUE) was established by EUA in 2009, with the support of the National Rectors’ Conferences. The main objective of EUA-EPUE is to bring together the capacities of the university sector to better contribute to the process of knowledge and education in the field of energy, and to better contribute to the objectives of the SET-Plan. In 2012, EUA-EPUE comprised 171 European universities that have demonstrated research and training capacity, and cooperation with industry in the energy field.

EUA was invited by the European Commission in 2008 to act as an observer on the Executive Committee of the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) on behalf of European universities. To take account of the strengths and capabilities of universities in the energy field, EUA launched an exploratory survey of university activities in 2010, which eventually led to the launch of EUA-EPUE at an inaugural meeting at Delft University of Technology in 2012. EUA-EPUE has since been actively involved in the SET-Plan process, through initiatives such as contributing to the SET-Plan Roadmap on Education and Training and the SET-Plan Integrated Roadmap.

The 2010 EUA-EPUE survey allowed a first overview of research and education activities in the energy field. Based on 171 responses, the survey outcomes showed that these universities hosted more than 1,400 research groups involving 20,000 people, and offer more than 600 Doctorate programmes and no less than 900 Master programmes related to the energy field. This sample demonstrated the relevance of universities as crucial actors tackling the human resources gap to move towards a low-carbon society. It also illustrated the substantial research and innovation capacity of the university sector in many areas related to energy, both technological and non-technological.

EUA-EPUE is advancing in its work in the field of energy and aims to increase its membership through the FP7 UNI-SET project (UNIversities in the SET-Plan). UNI-SET aims to further extend the available data on the energy-related activities of European universities by conducting a new survey that covers such aspects as fields of education and fields of science and technology related to Master, Doctorate and Research programmes. By doing so, UNI-SET will offer unique insights into university contributions to the realisation of a low-carbon society and lay a foundation for continued, empirically driven participation of the university sector in European energy policy developments. UNI-SET will also offer insights into the skills and competences required by the European energy sector employers which will allow universities to upgrade and update their programmes.

EUA-EPUE aims at being the central forum in Europe to discuss the strategic role of universities in the SET-Plan and in meeting the objectives of a sustainable low-carbon society. It can also be a platform to identify ideas for new research and education projects and find interested partners in the field of energy. It intends to strengthen the voice of the university sector in European policymaking in energy by reinforcing the dialogue with its universities and developing as an interface between European universities and European institutions.

EUA-EPUE and UNI-SET are the first actions aiming to mobilise the European university community to tackle a specific societal challenge. This experience could serve as a basis for developing similar activities to tackle other grand challenges in the future.