In mid-September, the Austrian region of Burgenland celebrated the Day of the Energy Turnaround and became the first European region to rely entirely on renewables for electricity production. Despite being the poorest Austrian region, Burgenland is now a model for best energy practices in Europe.

“To combat climate change also means to improve our health; add to this the creation of new jobs and it’s a great combination”, says Hans Niessl, Governor of Burgenland.

Energizing Europe conference. September 2013, Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

Energizing Europe conference. September 2013, Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

During their conference “Energizing Europe”, the Group of the Party of European Socialists (PES Group) in the Committee of the Regions invited representatives of local and regional governments to a study visit to “Weiden am See” – one of the Burgenland’s numerous windparks – to see a success story in Burgenland.

Today, Burgenland produces a majority of its electricity from wind power: 321 wind power stations make a total of 728 MW, saving over 105 million liters of petrol and one million tons of CO2 a year. By 2014, it plans to sell green electricity “Made in Burgenland“ and by 2050 the region aims to produce the total of its energy (including heat and transport) only from renewables.

Windfarm in Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

Windfarm in Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

“Without the support of the people, we will not manage”, claims Christian Illedits, leader of the regional PSE Group in Burgenland, underlining the support of the population as the key for the project to succeed. Windparks are accepted by citizens of Burgenland who see European investments in a positive light, giving impetus to the project of European integration.

About the Burgenland example, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the Belgian leader of the PES Group, says: “you can’t copy it, but it can serve as inspriration. “While wind has worked for Burgenland, the conference stressed the fact that every region needs a different energy concept, highlighting the pivotal role local and regional governments can play in the energy transition. “A new push in enthusiasm for Europe can only come from territorial entities”, Lambertz claims.

Energy security, affordability and sustainability were identified as the PES Group’s main political priorities at the conference. “Energy needs to stay affordable”, says MEP Karin Kadenbach. The storage as well as the feed-in and (cross-border) transport of the energy produced in such small scale renewable energy projects remain a challenge across Europe.

Paolo Bozzolo, head of project and commodity finance at UniCredit Bank Austria, asserts that financing of renewable energy projects has become increasingly difficult for banks, as some Member States failed to provide stable tariff frameworks.

The success story for Burgenland started in the mid-1990s when local politicians at the time identified the support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as an opportunity to undertake radical structural changes through technology and innovation. The decision was taken to invest in renewable energy sources to create new opportunities for a region that had got used to emigration and negative population growth.

Christian Illedits, renewable energies spokesman for the regional parliament. September 2013, Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

Christian Illedits, leader of the regional PES Group. September 2013, Burgenland, Austria. Source: PES Group CoR.

A new wind has been blowing in Burgenland since then: new carreers in skilled and higher education now train specialists in renewable energy technology. The windparks alone have brought over a thousand “green jobs“ to the region in the last 2 years, and Burgenland has indeed shown Austria’s highest growth rate in 2012. For a long-term success of the strategy, more investment is needed.

Over the last two decades, Burgenland had turned into an EcoEnergyLand, experimenting with all kinds of natural renewable sources of energy to produce heat and electricity, notably from biomass and photovoltaics; it even started to make biodiesel from colza and corn.

Not all the green energy projects in Burgenland have been successful, however, and their incapacity to survive without public subsidies – as in the current bankruptcy case of Burgenland’s probably most famous biomass plant in Güssing – is often the main reason for their failure.

With the inevitable rise of production costs from biomass and biofuels due to greater demand, the new forms of tapping renewable sources of energy has the advantage of being natural and free… for the time being. Harnessing wind power in Burgenland is exemplary of Europe’s energy transition towards more renewables and should be congratulated for its efforts.

Writer: Michela Pfeifer is an independent contributor to Revolve.