Less developed regions hold the key for Europe's energy transition

The EU's decarbonisation challenge

The EU has set itself the goal of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. To achieve this goal, we need to save energy, drastically increase the share of renewables in the energy mix, use energy more efficiently and increase carbon sinks. These measures will also help reduce energy bills, protect the environment, reduce fossil fuel purchases and thus the EU's dependence on oil and gas imports.
Changing our energy systems is essential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The total gross available energy in the EU in 2022 amounted to 16 000 terawatt hours. In 2022, 70% of the total gross available energy in the EU came from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil). Nuclear energy accounted for 11% and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower, as well as biomass and biofuels, provided 18% of the gross available energy.
These numbers illustrate the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Decarbonizing the economy means replacing 11 000 terawatt hours or 70% of our currently available energy with non-fossil alternatives.
Explore in in the figure on the right how the energy mix of EU countries changed between 1990 and 2022.
Gross available energy is the total energy a country or the EU has on hand for everything. This includes energy for power generation, supporting the energy industry itself, distribution, use in homes and businesses, and non-energy uses of fossil fuels like in chemicals. It also counts fuel bought within the country but used internationally, for instance on flights.

Upscaling wind, solar and hydropower

The further expansion of production capacities for renewable energies is therefore a key strategy for achieving a climate-neutral continent by 2050.
In 2023, the solar, wind and hydropower plants installed in the EU generated together almost 1 000 terawatt hours of electricity, which is still a long way from the 11 000 terawatt hours generated from fossil fuels. However, current renewable energy sources from wind, solar and hydropower represent only a fraction of the technical untapped potential, i.e. the additional renewable energy that can be generated based on available land, wind and sunlight. The total untapped potential for renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower sources amounts to 12 500 terawatt hours per year, divided between photovoltaics (88 %), onshore wind power (11 %) and hydropower (1 %). Forests and water bodies, land with permanent crops, protected areas and areas with high biodiversity and high nature value farmlands are excluded as sites for additional production. In addition, wind and solar farms are not considered on land close to settlements or industrial areas.
Half of this potential is concentrated in the predominantly rural regions of the EU. The untapped potential would mainly come from potential ground-mounted photovoltaic systems in Spain, Romania, France, Portugal and Italy.
Use the map to explore the untapped potential for renewable energy of your or other regions. 
Use the graphs below to find aggregated statistics of the untapped potential for renewable energy.
Zoom and click on the map on the right to select a region and see the exact value of untapped energy potential (MWh/km²/year).
The maps of the Outermost Regions can be seen under the globe icon. 
How much wind and solar energy could be harvested in your country?
TIP: Use the menu on each chart (top right) to download the data.
What is the EU's the untapped potential for wind and solar energy by level of regional development and urban-rural typology?
Rural regions can boost energy production but need structural changes
The green energy transition and the associated strengthening of the role of renewable energies offer unique opportunities for rural, less developed regions, as they can benefit from their natural resources and geographical location. Exploiting this potential could benefit economic cohesion in the EU. A recent study used the data on untapped potential was used to simulate the impact of exploiting this potential on job creation and economic growth (Többen et al. 2023). The gradual phasing out of fossil fuels for energy production and the gradual deployment of wind and solar energy is projected to lead to higher value added (up to EUR 1570 more per capita) and more employment (up to 4.9% more) in lagging rural regions.
However, to exploit this potential, knowledge sharing, technical support and investment in renewable energy production, but also in distribution infrastructure, digitalization and connectivity potential must be facilitated. In addition, the impact on landscapes or biodiversity, but also on rural communities, must be taken into account.
A number of initiatives have been taken at EU level to provide the necessary support and technical assistance to rural areas willing to set up rural energy communities, among other things, so that they too can benefit from the green transition.

What is the EU's cohesion policy doing about climate change?

The EU's Cohesion Policy targets all regions and cities in the European Union in order to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth, sustainable development and improve citizens’ quality of life. In order to reach these goals and address the diverse development needs in all EU regions, € 392 billion – almost a third of the total EU budget – has been set aside for Cohesion Policy for the period 2021-2027. The bulk of Cohesion Policy funding is concentrated on less developed European countries and regions in order to help them to catch up and to reduce the economic, social and territorial disparities that still exist within the EU. Find out more about the policy on this webpage
For the 2021-27 period, cohesion policy funding is delivering more that EUR 118 billion investment in climate action, including in renewables. This represents a significant contribution to EU climate goals in line with the European Green Deal, to secure a sustainable path towards a climate neutral Europe.
Explore the planned investment actions 2021-2027 by Member State in this climate action data story. The equivalent 2014-2020 Climate Tracking data story is on this link.  
The Just Transition Fund (JTF) is one of the most striking and visible aspects of the 2021-2027 period of Cohesion policy. The JTF is part of the Just Transition Mechanism, created to make sure that no person and no region is left behind in the climate transition.
Use the data story for more background on the JTF and to explore the related investment plans 2021-2027 in the EU and in specific territories.

More information and data sources

This data story is extracted from the 9th Cohesion Report on Economic, Social and Territorial Cohesion in the European Union, (2024). Find out more about the Cohesion Report on this webpage.
The following sources were used:  
For more information on EU Cohesion policy go to Inforegio and to Kohesio for information on projects supported.
Author: Joachim MAES
Date of publication: March 2024