The normalization of making wind energy a communal asset is a slow process in Europe due to social, financial and legislative factors. Thus, the ownership of onshore wind power is still mainly in the hands of big and commercialized investment companies. Due to the fact that this is a hindrance to a just energy transition, the article looks into this issue. It analyses current barricades and opportunities as well as looks into good practices, which can act as blueprints for communally owned wind energy.
(Wind) POWER to the PEOPLE!
Cooperative, citizen ownership of wind energy is a very important element of the democratization and decentralization of energy ownership. Energy communities (EC) have the capacity to distribute resources in a fair and just way. That means citizens are able to consume harvested power at beneficial and stable rate. They can also engage from the beginning in the decision making processes. Self-reliability also means that citizens become increasingly creative with their shared assets. In many cases EC’s become places of innovative activities, which can transpire outwards. Mark Bolinger in his paper on community wind power ownership schemes, additionally points out that when wind power is cooperatively, but also locally owned it has more direct benefits to the community and is more socially accepted.
So, whats going on?
According to Schreuer and Sammer in their review ‘Energy cooperatives and local ownership in the field of renewable energy technologies‘, there are examples of onshore wind energy cooperatives in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany and also in other countries such as Belgium. Nevertheless despite having such good precendents, the amount of citizen-owned wind energy is still quite low. This is caused by multiple obstacles.
First of all, in many EU countries, such as Germany, wind turbines, and thus ownership of wind energy, is typically sold in a bidding process to those, who put in the best bid. Usually, due to access to funds, the winning bidders include institutional investors such as banks, insurance companies, investment funds etc. These institutions, unlike energy cooperatives, work on a commercial level with the intention of making a profit. Although less concerned with the just energy transition concept, these companies are able to offer local jobs, finance training schemes and invest in large wind farms rather than individual turbines. EC’s on the contrary, are not investing in wind turbines for profit, rather for a fair energy price and in most cases are not financially dependent solely on the cooperative. The result is that EC’s end up owning one or two wind turbines, while large corporations swallow the rest.
Another big problem is that onshore wind energy is still quite under exploited. Little public acceptance and legislative constraints are among many factors that cause this. Many citizens still fear the impact of wind turbines on the landscape and the discomfort of the noise. Additionally legislative frameworks define minimum distance of wind turbines from built-up areas, which, in many countries, significantly shrinks the available space.
Opportunities and good practice examples
Many efforts are put into counteracting the current wind power obstacles. Additionally energy transition agents put parallel efforts into finding alternatives. One of the recent solutions is to increase the investment in offshore wind turbines. Offshore wind farms do not have the issues of proximity to built-up regions and therefore engineers can erect more turbines. Additional benefits of this type of wind power is that there are much more wind resources (wind is much stronger) at high sea. This generates much more energy. One government, which is using this advantage is the Belgian government. They are pushing for and encouraging citizen participation in large offshore wind farms. In order to do that they engage renewable energy communities.
Two of TANDEMS partners, ZuidtrAnt and Klimaan are benefiting from this resolution. They participate in a Belgian cooperative social enterprise SeaCoop. SeaCoop is founded by 33 renewable citizen initiatives. It focuses on giving people control over the production and use of energy from the North Sea at an affordable price. More specifically the coopertive aims to bring wind electricity to households and SME’s via cooperative suppliers.
Cooperating on an international level
This decision of the Belgian government comes days before the Ostend Declaration. The declaration recognises the ‘importance of North Sea in the energy transition and that collaboration between the involved countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway and the UK) will be instrumental in accelerating energy transition’. Basically the declaration calls for more cooperation between participating countries. Additionally a more integrated European energy market and more investment in research and innovation. The Ostend Declaration paired with Belgians government resolution to involve citizens in ownership of wind energy can be a breakthrough for introducing new models and frameworks on how communities can be more democratically involved in production, distribution and usage of renewable energy.
Wind power is a crucial source of renewable energy. Nevertheless communally owned and shared wind energy infrastructure still needs a lot of legislative and infrastructural changes. However, innovations, which the TANDEMS partners are participating in, is a step forward. Successful examples such as SeaCoop are great pilot projects. They, through experimentation, lay down architecture that others can build up on.