An EU-funded project has driven collaboration on renewable energy between businesses and researchers in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova with counterparts from EU countries. The links are boosting innovation – helping the participating countries make the transition to more sustainable energy sources.
The EU Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, in particular Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova, are facing serious challenges in achieving energy security. They are mainly reliant on imports of oil and gas from Russia, while Armenia is dependent on an outdated nuclear plant. These countries have huge potential when it comes to renewable energy but links between research and business have been difficult since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In response, the EU-funded ENER2I project helped these EaP countries tie their businesses to the latest research in an effort to develop sustainable energy solutions. One of the key ways this was achieved was through a competition for innovation vouchers for businesses developing new approaches to renewable sources and energy efficiency.
Funding through these vouchers was awarded to 30 small businesses to develop innovations such as the use of solar energy at a greenhouse in Moldova, energy-efficient fish and salad production, wear-resistant solar modules in Belarus, and plastic solar panels in Armenia.
The incentive allowed businesses to work together with researchers from their home country and EU countries, bridging a gap that had existed for over 25 years. The usual cooperation links between research organisations and business were cut with the end of the Soviet Union due to severe research budget cuts, the economic crisis, the end of a command economy and transition to market, as well as the disruption of production chains caused by newly independent states, says ENER2I project coordinator Manfred Spiesberger of the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna, Austria.
Cooperation between research and business is a certain challenge in many countries and in EaP countries it is an important challenge, says Spiesberger. At the same time, there is huge potential for energy efficiency measures and good potential for renewable energies, which are barely exploited yet.
Funding small businesses with big ideas
Out of 81 applications for the innovation vouchers from the four countries, 30 projects were chosen. The vouchers financed winning projects with EUR 4 000 each and provided small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with grants for cooperation with research partners both in the EU and at home. This improved cooperation with innovation agencies, research and energy organisations.
ENER2I also sought to develop strong and sustainable networks. To do this, it held events in both EU and EaP countries, during which participants could make contact and share experiences with their colleagues from abroad. Eight workshops were held on innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
The incentives provided to the participating SMEs through the voucher system were intended to help them develop products for immediate commercial use. The projects also served as examples of the effectiveness of a voucher system to stimulate energy innovation.
For example, one of the success stories from Moldova concerned a project that had set out to achieve energy independence on a farm. The funding helped the farm develop a system to use agricultural waste as fuel and it is now producing enough energy to keep it running.
Spiesberger hopes local authorities will take the voucher concept on-board and develop their own schemes. For example, the Moldovan Agency for Innovation and Technology Transfer, a project partner, approached the local Ministry of Economy to implement a voucher scheme nationally. No funding has yet been allocated but the structure is now in place, Spiesberger says.
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