Myth : Rural areas are all powered by alternative energy anyway

A large number of rural families and business are 'off-grid' and therefore have to make other choices. But in fact, the stark choice is most often between the polluting (coal, wood or heating oil) or renewable energy technologies which do not have the government support to make truly viable

Sustainable Energy Solutions for Rural Europe

Over half of the population in the EU lives outside of urban environments, in intermediate and rural areas. Predominantly rural regions represent 57% of the territory and 24% of the total population1, and contribute 17% to the total value added in the EU2.

Recent research shows that rural regions in Europe may have different characteristics in terms of energy access and use, compared to their intermediate and urban counterparts3. Although differences exist between countries and regions, rural communities tend to rely more heavily on carbon intensive fuels that include coal, diesel and heating oil, and some of the more remote regions have no access to mains gas supply. Due to a lack of investments in infrastructure, electrical power supply is also not always reliable or efficient. Rural inhabitants may therefore have a more limited choice of energy solutions. Moreover, the rural building stock is relatively old, equipped with inefficient heating units and is often sub-optimally insulated. People in rural areas may therefore also face higher-than-necessary energy bills4. These factors combined, highlight the great environmental, social and economic potential of switching to cleaner, renewable and locally available energy sources.

A wide range of sustainable energy solutions is available

Today there are many sustainable energy solutions available to households, businesses and agriculture that have the potential to address these issues and offer particular advantages for rural areas. Advantages may include savings through less – or more efficient use of energy, reduced air and soil pollution, a reduction of associated greenhouse gas emissions and self-reliance.

The FREE choices range, provides accurate and clear information on a number of energy related solutions that are available in rural areas. For each solution (14 in total), factsheets have been developed that contain information regarding main benefits/concerns, technical workings, suitability, and related costs, savings and earnings.

These solutions can be grouped into three distinctive categories: a) energy efficiency measures for buildings, b) a set of energy application technologies, including condensing boilers, solar water heaters and solar-PV, and c) low-carbon and renewable fuels. The specific rural relevance of these solutions is also addressed in this report.

Energy efficiency measures for buildings

Within the existing European building stock, a large share (more than 40%) predates the 1960s, when there were little to no energy efficiency requirements. Only a minor part of these buildings have undergone major energy retrofits, indicating low insulation levels and the use of old and inefficient (heating) systems4,5.

Small investments in energy efficiency can already significantly reduce expenditures on heating and electricity. This could particularly benefit cash-strapped farmers, rural businesses and households. Both insulation and high performing windows have a long lifetime, are effective for several decades and will pay back several times in this period. Proper building insulation also improves comfort and enhances people’s well-being.

Energy Conversion Technologies

Energy conversion technologies 5 include a wide range of modern technologies for the provision of heating, cooling and power. There are technologies available on the market that i) use fossil fuels more efficiently as compared to conventional systems and ii) tap into renewable energy sources:

Technologies that use fossil fuels efficiently include condensing boilers that provide heating and so-called micro-CHP installations that generate power and heat simultaneously.

Condensing boilers are heat generators used for space and/or water heating. They can reach higher energy efficiencies than conventional (non-condensing) boilers because they are able to extract additional heat from the exhaust gases that would otherwise be lost and released into the atmosphere.


Micro-CHP units are most suitable in buildings that need long, uninterrupted heating loads, i.e. commercial and public buildings, as well as some larger houses. In these situations they can further reduce fuel consumption as compared to (condensing) boilers. Moreover, if an unreliable power grid blacks out, micro-CHP can step in to provide back-up electricity.

Both type of installations usually replace conventional boilers and can be connected to existing central heating systems of buildings. They may run on varies fuels. In regions where a mains gas grid is available, natural gas is a logical and cost-effective choice. In rural and more remote areas where the mains gas grid is not present, LPG is a viable and low-carbon option. Biogas is another poten- tial energy source for these technologies, particularly for those rural regions where biomass is locally available.

Both condensing boilers and micro-CHP installations are also very compatible with solar heating systems (addressed below) that can increase the overall efficiency of a building’s heating system further and reduce fuel cost.

Technologies that tap into renewable energy sources and provide heating (and cooling) include solar thermal water heating systems and heat pumps.

Solar thermal systems collect and convert heat from the sun’s radiation into warm tap water and/or space heating. In most situations a solar water heating system is complementary to another heating unit for moments where the sun

does not provide enough heat (during the night, in winter etc.). Solar water systems generate renewable heat and are able to establish substantial fuel and carbon savings. Even in more northern European countries, installations can still provide about half of the hot water requirements through- out the year. The solar heat collector is sized to match the required heat demand. Larger systems are available that can heat large volumes of water for agricultural applica- tions such as milk production.

Heat pumps transform omnipresent low temperature heat from the outside air, the ground or ground water into useful heat. They can increase the total efficiency of energy use as compared (condensing) heating boilers and conven-

tional air conditioning units. Most heat pumps currently installed in Europe run on electricity, requiring 20 – 25% of electricity on average to produce 100% useful energy for heating, cooling and hot water. Moreover, electrically driven heat pumps are very suitable for rural regions not connected to the mains gas supply and could be powered by locally generated renewable electricity (e.g. solar PV). There are also heat pump systems available on the market that run on natural gas from the grid, or alternatively, on LPG or biogas.

Solar Photovoltaic (solar PV) is a tech- nology that converts the energy of the sun into electrical power. The technology has seen a dramatic cost reduction in recent years and prices are expected to continue to come down. Solar PV

systems usually supply only a certain share of a consumer’s electricity need as a large part of the consumption takes place after sunset. In many European countries consumers are allowed to export the non-consumed electricity to the grid and receive a value for it. Electricity from the grid is then used to provide electricity when own production is insufficient. For remote areas where the power grid is not available, off-grid versions are available. Such systems may need to be complemented by energy storage equipment or auxiliary power units, potentially connected through a micro-grid, to supply electricity when the sun is not avail- able. Buildings such as offices and schools, but also impor- tant economic sectors in rural areas including agriculture and industry, largely use electricity during the day. In those cases, solar PV can be especially attractive as systems can cover large parts of the overall electricity demand and provide electricity at the time it is needed.

Renewable and low carbon fuels

There is a set of renewable fuels available to consumers in rural areas to-date that have the potential to reduce green- house gas emissions and the dependence on imported fossil fuels, and allow for the production in rural areas. These include biogas, solid biomass and liquid biofuels.

Biogas offers rural areas the possibility to use locally or regionally available energy sources. It is produced by converting animal waste and organic matter into methane and has similar properties as natural gas. (Refined) biogas can be the

energy source for the production of electricity, heat (and the cogeneration of heat and power, CHP), in transport or when upgraded to natural gas quality, for injection into a gas grid supplying end-consumers.

Biogas is can be produced from local or regionally available residues that have low associated emissions and does not have to compete with other land-uses such as food pro- duction. In rural areas, animal and organic waste is usually widely available and often considered as having little value. The production of biogas can make such residue streams of value and may provide economic opportunities for the agricultural and forestry sector in rural areas.

Solid biomass is the oldest and most utilised source of renewable energy. It includes wood fuels such as woodchips, wood pellets and split logs. Solid biomass is combusted in increasingly efficient boilers or stoves that convert it into heat

for hot water and space heating purposes. Biomass is par- ticularly attractive in rural areas where the biomass is readily available and alternative fuels, such as heating oil, are expensive. Although the price of solid biomass fuel varies considerably, it may be cheaper than other heating fuels where biomass is regionally available. There are however limits on the supply of biomass – both in terms of sustainability and of available land – that will become increasingly apparent as Europe strives to increase the share of renewable energy. These issues are addressed in stricter sustainability criteria that are currently being defined by the European Commission. Also local air pollution may become an issue in areas with high shares of solid fuels combustion.

Biofuels is the generic name for refined liquids derived from plants, plant waste and, in some cases, animal waste prod- ucts. Biofuels are used either as a pure product or, more commonly, as a blend with conventional fossil fuel liquids.

They are currently commonly used in transport. Related benefits for rural areas include low carbon emissions, biofuels are a renewable energy source and may lead to a reduced dependence on imported fuels. The sourcing and production of biofuels may also provide new economic and employment opportunities in rural areas, particularly in the agricultural and forestry sectors. As with solid biomass, also here sustainability and land-use issues play an important role, comparable to those related to solid biomass that limit their production potential. Therefore, biofuels in quantities to meaningfully impact the transportation sector are not likely to be sufficiently available locally in most rural areas

Low carbon fuels that are available to rural areas not con- nected to the mains gas supply, include liquefied petro- leum gas (LPG) as well as liquefied natural gas (LNG).

LPG is a natural by-product from the extraction of natural gas and oil, and from refining crude oil. At room temperature, LPG is gaseous, but when cooled or pres- surized, it becomes liquid. In liquid form,

the gas can be easily transported and stored on-site in tanks of varies sizes, as well as small cylinders.

LPG is an attractive fuel for rural areas that are not con- nected to the mains gas grid. In these areas it may provide a low-carbon and economic alternative to coal, heating oil, diesel or electricity from the grid. Similar to natural gas from the mains gas grid, LPG is a flexible source of energy and has a wide variety of uses including space and water heating, cooking and power generation. In combination with energy efficient conversion technologies such as con- densing boilers and micro-CHP systems, further carbon and energy savings can be established.

LNG is natural gas in a liquid form. By making gas liquid, its volume is reduced, making it possible to transport it over long distances. When LNG reaches its des- tination, it is stored in special tanks and returned to a gas in a regasification facility. It can then be piped to and used by rural homes, businesses and industries

LNG has several advantages. Rural towns and regions may be located far away from gas resources. Transporting gas by pipeline to those areas can be costly and impractical. Because it is easy to transport, LNG can serve to make gas economical and accessible to those areas for which the construction of pipelines is uneconomical. Also, LNG is a relatively low carbon fossil fuel compared to coal, heating oil, diesel or electricity from the grid.

Specific challenges and opportunities for rural Europe

Rural areas can have an intrinsic fragility in economic, environmental and social terms and face a range of challenges in terms of employment potential, income levels and access to services. The large majority of rural regions in Europe (>80%) record a GPD per inhabitant below the EU average6. Improving energy efficiency, reducing dependence on imported fuels and an increased deployment and use of low carbon and renewable energy sources, offer opportunities for economic development. Renewable energy may provide remote rural regions with the opportunity to produce their own energy, rather than importing conventional energy from outside. It can also generate extra income for land owners and land-based activities and may thereby lead to improved competitiveness of the agriculture and forestry sectors. For example, farmers and forest owners who integrate renewable energy production into their activities can potentially diversify, increase, and stabilise their income sources.

While improved building insulation and installing high energy performing windows is almost always a sensible strategy when insulation levels are low, the applicability as well as economic and environmental benefits of energy conversion technologies and low-carbon and renewable fuels depend on a number of factors. These include the availability of local energy sources, the specific climate conditions, the level of energy demand and the existing energy mix in the area. This underlines that there is not a single solution to rural energy challenges across the EU: they will all have a role to play.

In order to increase the adoption of sustainable energy solutions in rural Europe and to tap into their environmental and economic potential, policy makers need to address in a more comprehensive and coordinated way, the challenges and opportunities that rural areas face. Two main challenges from a policy point of view are a) mobilising the vast potential for the adoption of low-carbon and renewable energy in rural regions that lack the financial resources to do so, and b) to coordinate the large set of available policy instruments and financial incentives on local, regional, national and EU level to enhance access to energy efficiency measures that have so-far received little attention in rural areas.