Bogovič: RES, Nuclear, and Electrification of Transport Key for Decarbonisation
Date: March 25th 2019
Smart villages, the Mladi mladim (Youth for Youth) project, blockchain, and nuclear power. These were the topics that Energetika.NET touched upon with the MEP, former Mayor of Krško (known for its nuclear power plant) and former Slovenian Minister of Agriculture and Environment. Franc Bogovič, who received the 2018 MEP Award in the category of Research and Innovation, is also the Honorary Patron of this year’s PowerUp! competition for energy start-ups – an InnoEnergy event, hosted in Slovenia by ABC Accelerator. As Bogovič explained to Energetika.NET, “the Posavje region generates around 40% of the country’s electricity, so the state-level energy developments are of great importance to us, especially in terms of the fate of the Krško nuclear power plant (NPP). We definitely need to continue our work on the completion of the hydropower plants (HPPs) on the lower course of the Sava river, strengthen the Brestanica thermal power plant (TPP), whose gas units have saved the country from a blackout more than once, and establish the conditions that will enable private actors to produce their own renewable electricity, also by promoting the establishment of energy co-operatives.” Franc Bogovič will join Romana Jordan of Slovenia’s Jožef Štefan Institute for an energy debate prior to the announcement of the winning energy startups, taking place on Thursday, 4 April. Bogovič, once an entrepreneur himself, has managed to do something that many start-ups aspire towards – he sold the company he owned.Your office recently announced that the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (REGI) proposed that EUR 13.5 billion be put towards the development of naturally, geographically, and demographically disadvantaged rural areas, with EUR 2.4 billion going towards the development of the Smart Villages project. Has the European Parliament already approved the proposal and what are the chances of the funds being approved also by the European Commission and the EU Council?
The proposal for this regulation, which received overwhelming support from the Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (REGI), will definitely be approved by the European Parliament at a plenary taking place between 25 and 28 March. The final approval of the regulation and the exact amount of funds will be known after the final alignment following the so-called trialogue between the European Parliament, the EU Council, and the European Commission, scheduled for the second half of the year. I definitely believe that fields, such as digitalisation, precision farming, short food chains, the population of the countryside, rural mobility, social innovation, the sharing economy, e-health, distributed energy, etc. will receive vital support in the future.
How much of these resources could Slovenia receive?
The final breakdown of the funds of the European Regional Fund by Member State is still unknown at this stage, as we need to wait for the definitive agreement between the EU institutions about the multiannual financial EU framework for the period 2021-2027. We can expect to receive about EUR 200-300 million from the Regional Fund for the countryside, with about EUR 30-40 million going towards the development of projects in the framework of the smart villages concept. However, a lot more funds will be made available as part of the Common Agricultural Policy measures, aimed mostly at precision farming, connectivity in agriculture, and LEADER measures which promote co-operation in the countryside.
Through my activities within the country and in the European Parliament, I have helped Slovenia assume the role of the torchbearer of the Smart Villages initiative, organising around 30 round tables and taking part in many conferences on the subject. This was mainly to raise awareness of this action among rural inhabitants, while also identifying any related initiatives which are already developing in Slovenia on their own. I am happy to say that we have already been able to identify quite a few good initiatives, relating to business, agriculture, energy, and mobility, as well as to social issues and medicine, that are under development in Slovenia. It is these Slovenian cases (which are already a step ahead in terms of the smart villages concept) that I want to bring together, with the help of knowledge institutions, and submit the resulting project as part of an open call for pilot projects or so-called preparatory action of the European Commission when it launches such a call in the field of smart villages. I want to make sure that when this happens, we are fully prepared and ready to submit a truly excellent Slovenian Smart villages project.
Who will be able to take part in this project?
Practically anyone who is interested in smart villages and who sees an opportunity in this. The project will definitely be open to a wide range of innovative ideas and solutions, which will help make life easier in the countryside, no matter the field. The concrete specifications of the tender will of course be set out in the European Commission’s call.
How do you see smart villages affecting life and work in the countryside and in small cities in the coming decades?
Smart villages are a key concept which will help us make use of the current digitalisation age to build on the successful concept of a polycentric development in Slovenia, which we had established in the 1970s and which ensured that the Slovenian countryside stayed populated. We need to slow down the trend of rural exodus, reduce the pressure on large cities, and keep the countryside populated, cultivated, and beautiful. We will use development and modern solutions, business models and technologies to solve various problems faced by the rural population. These are problems that city inhabitants never face. For example, in Ljubljana, the internet, that is, fibre optics are mostly accessible to everybody, whereas in the Slovenian countryside, this is far from the case, despite the fact that, in this digital age, we often take the internet for granted. Not everybody has this access – no yet at least! However, once they have it, it will be easier for young people to conduct their work in their rural hometowns, especially if an internet connection is crucial for their work, which applies to nearly every job nowadays. Another example is the mobility difficulties that senior citizens face in the countryside. For people above a certain age, living a lonely life on top of some hill, in a town where public transport is rare and there are no taxi services, it is very difficult to even reach their doctor, the post office, or the convenient store. In Slovenia, this issue is already being addressed by an excellent organisation called Sopotniki (Co-travellers), which works on a volunteer basis, using a special application, often operating with the help of the municipalities.
The purpose therefore is to make rural life easier in all its aspects and to create living conditions comparable to those of urban inhabitants.
How are projects such as Smart Villages important for promoting innovation among the young? To what degree can young start-ups play a vital role in the project?
The young are actually the key to innovation. They are the drivers of new ideas, different approaches, they are usually braver and ready to take more risks than the older generations.
Additionally, the concept of smart villages actually creates a space for innovation and for the young. Who else, if not the young, will figure out the intricacies of a “smart countryside”? In agriculture, they are already beginning to take over the farms. Sopotniki, which I already mentioned, is an example of an innovative solution in the field of mobility and also in the social field, which helps solve the transport problems of the elderly living in the countryside, while also providing some social interaction and a feeling of being part of the community.
The smart villages concept will provide start-ups with excellent opportunities, both in the cities and in the countryside. This includes co-operation with the Jožef Štefan Institute through its Strategic Research and Innovation Partnership (SRIP) for smart cities and communities. After all, close co-operation between the cities and the countryside will play a vital role in creating synergistic effects in the future as well.
Openness for innovation is and will be found in different sectors. I also have faith in our young to use their fresh mindsets, ideas, new approaches, and openness to find opportunities and take part in the smart villages concept. It is the young that will be able to elevate the culture of co-operation, which is usually the aspect that we often still lack in Slovenia. With better co-operation, we could develop many smart ideas in Slovenia a lot faster.
Are there any particular start-ups that have caught your eye during your activities? What do you think about the future development of the connectivity and co-operation between start-ups and traditional energy companies?
I would definitely point out Sopotniki with its innovative provision of mobility and social services to the elderly living in the countryside, as well as Grunt, a social enterprise focusing on rural areas, the energy trading platform SunContract, which brings together the energy sector and the new challenges of blockchain and crypto currencies, and the energy company GEN-I with its business model of generating electricity from renewables, based on the principle of net metering, which is very suitable for the countryside. This model consists of a solar power plant, connected to a heat pump, a battery for storing electricity, an electric vehicle, and a service of providing a reserve for the security of the electricity network via blockchain. This sets up a real active consumer of electricity, also discussed in the newly adopted EU regulations that govern the Energy Union. Even Slovenia’s Petrol, a more traditional energy company, with which we are already co-operating to some degree in the field of smart villages, is introducing energy efficiency solutions and energy contracting, for example by co-operating with the company Biomasa and other project partners on establishing energy self-sufficiency in the Luče municipality, which I welcome and support.
How should we include the young in the process of designing a more sustainable energy future?
Schools can play a vital role, raising these issues more often and providing more information, also by opening up and connecting with the local companies. It was in my effort to help promote closer co-operation between schools and the local companies that I launched the project Mladi mladim (Youth for Youth) this year, which we are carrying out in the regions of Posavje and Ptuj as part of our wider project Alliance for Youth. As part of the project, groups of high school students, together with their mentors – teachers or expert associates from different schools – discuss one of the current EU policies relating to climate, energy, agriculture or mobility, and look at the current developments in this field in the EU, as well as the trends, and get to know the associated practices of companies in their close vicinity. I was delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response that I got from both the schools in Posavje and the Ptuj High School and the local companies which agreed to take part in the project, but especially by the response of the high school students who entered these projects groups, which allowed them to see for themselves the different enterprises, for example the HPPs or GEN Group. Another aim is to provide the pupils with experience and new content outside the regular school environment, which encourages them to reflect and think about new ideas as they go forward, including those relating to a sustainable energy future. We need to bring schools and the industry closer together.
You used to be the Mayor of the Krško municipality, where nuclear energy plays a vital role. To what extent do you still follow the developments in this field? Which direction should the Posavje region take in terms of energy?
I am continually entangled in local affairs, since last autumn also as a municipal councillor of the Slovenian People’s Party (SLS) in the Krško municipality. In the past, the Posavje region paved the way in many energy-related fields, be it RES or nuclear. We never waited to see what Ljubljana would come up with next, but knew how to organise and connect on time. We managed to show and prove that a proactive local policy and connectivity go a long way. As a result, we now have four HPPs operating on the lower course of the Sava river, whereas preparations for the start of construction of a fifth one in Mokrice are intensifying and the plant is expected to be built in the next four years. It is worth mentioning that these power plants greatly contributed to achieving the required EU-level RES generation objectives on a national level.
On a state level, Slovenia committed itself to achieving a 15% share of electric vehicles in its vehicle fleet by 2030. Another long-term EU objective which we need to reach is reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, in line with the country’s fair contribution to this end. All these proposals require us to act decisively, also in terms of energy – by reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, greatly increasing the share of renewables, and addressing new electricity needs. It is a pity that Slovenia still hasn’t managed to adopt a long-term energy concept, as it would provide the answers to the questions relating to the second unit of the Krško NPP, unit 6 of the Šoštanj TPP, and so on.
The Posavje region generates around 40% of the country’s electricity, so the state-level energy developments are of great importance to us, especially in terms of the fate of the Krško NPP. We definitely need to continue our work on the completion of the HPPs on the lower course of the Sava river, strengthen the Brestanica TPP, whose gas units have saved the country from a blackout more than once, and establish the conditions that will enable private actors to produce their own renewable electricity, also by promoting the establishment of energy co-operatives.
I am proud to say that the Krško municipality was named Slovenia’s most energy efficient municipality in 2010, during my term as mayor (MORE), and again in 2013.
What is your take on the debate on the necessity of a new unit at the Slovenian NPP – also as a former minister?
Electricity is gradually taking over the role of coal and oil, becoming the most important future energy source, which will drive the formation of policies relating to the transition to a low-carbon society. Electricity is therefore becoming the link between all three infrastructure sectors – IT, transport, and energy. The transition to a low-carbon society is a priority for all mankind. The energy industry is the main force to guide this transition, whereas the related mindset and proven technologies can offer solutions for the transport sector as well as other branches of the economy. The transition can be facilitated by the energy sectors that are already low-carbon and that do not see the transition as a problem, but as a solution to help increase added value, create quality jobs for highly-skilled workers in Slovenia, and a competitive advantage for the country’s economy. Considering the growing need for electricity, resulting from existing and new types of use, decarbonised sources, such as RES and nuclear, will have to play a key role in decarbonisation on the production side, whereas electrification will have to take the lead when it comes to the use. Having been a mayor of Krško for many years, I support the continued use of nuclear energy for the production of electricity, as I am well acquainted with the safety procedures and know that with appropriate waste management, the risk to the environment is minimal. In addition to its affordability, this also allows us to ensure greater stability of the energy system and a lower dependency on imports. Something definitely needs to be done, but the question is: are we, as a country, prepared to accept the increase in energy prices resulting from the full transition to RES or would we prefer to try a different combination, which also foresees the construction of the second unit of the NPP?
At the tenth edition of Montel Energetika.NET’s En.odmev 017, you said that it is essential that Slovenian companies are also the agents of change, not only the followers (MORE). How has the country’s energy industry progressed in this regard?
Unfortunately, I’m realising that not much has changed since then. The lack of a long-term strategic energy plan is a reflection of this. It is up to the country’s politicians to determine and draw up the energy policy guidelines for the next 30 years. After all, this is a sector of strategic importance for Slovenia, so this is not something we should be putting off for too long. Long-term planning is crucial for a successful transition to a low-carbon society. We have top-notch energy experts at our disposal, excellent energy companies, which are also relevant players in the international context, and a myriad of innovative practices, but what we need is a clear vision of where we want to go.
Slovenia currently uses an energy system that was designed in the 1970s. We have a stable electricity supply, provided at adequate prices, and a relatively favourable mix of energy sources. The energy industry is undergoing rapid change, which we need to take into account in our decisions. The siting of energy facilities and their construction takes at least a decade. The politicians need to have more courage, listen to the experts, identify the trends, decide which direction they want to take and draw up a strategic energy plan. A perspective spanning from one mandate to the next is not enough, we need a vision for the next 20, 30 years.
You will be joining us at this year’s PowerUp! event, organised by Europe’s largest energy accelerator InnoEnergy, which will feature Slovenia’s best energy startups. Can you describe your personal entrepreneurial experience? You once founded and ran your own company, which you managed to sell after winning the mayoral elections – something many start-ups aspire towards. What was it like to be Franc Bogovič, entrepreneur?