Why should we, as citizens, participate in an Energy Community?

As an initiative of citizens, who bring together resources for sustainable projects, we, ZuidtrAnt, a Belgian energy community with almost 10 years of experience, know first hand the uncertainties connected with joining energy communities. Nevertheless after years of working in the field of providing local and renewable energy to all members of the society, we can confidently stand behind our social purpose and fill you in on the benefits of joining an energy community.  

Energy Independence? Energy or Independence?

One of the most important reason to join an energy community is energy independence. By that we mean the ability to generate and distribute your own energy, but also have an in-depth understanding of energy transition and the future of renewable energy. Energy cooperatives involve members in every step of development. They give households personalised assessments or advice and home-owners decide what kind of involvement they would like to have. There are cases, where an energy cooperative plans to renovate a whole neighbourhood, but even then each residents can decide to what extent they want to be involved in the energy community. Those residents, who decide to be involved are given tools, adive and guidance. Energy cooperatives always work on a local level, which takes into consideration the local circumstances.   

Neighbourhood Renovation
Economy, skills and resilience.

Another ideologically less sexy but nevertheless relevant aspect is, of course, economic advantage. On one hand being a part of an energy community lowers energy prices and provides members with stable bills. This is because energy communities prioritize social value or member benefits over profit maximization. On the other hand, however, economic advantage also relates to the general participation in energy transition. For example the truth is that each European government wants to reach carbon neutrality goals.

In the words of Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Union, ‘The Green Deal is about cutting emissions, but also about creating jobs and boosting innovation. […] The old growth model based on fossil fuels is out of date and out of touch with our planet. We want to be the frontrunners in climate friendly industries, in clean technologies, in green financing. Our goal is to […] make it work for the people […] and be sure that no one is left behind‘.

Energy communities become the best vehicle for this because they allow citizens to have an active impact in the transition, becoming the makers of change rather than passive receivers of consequences. Local residents learn new skills and become more resilient. That means that they are able to sustain a comfortable way of living even when the surrounding industry undergoes change.

Neighbourhood and social cohesion.

Finally, energy communities, at least the way we organise them, are about neighbourhood cohesion. Working together towards a goal, which gives advantages to all is a very fulfilling task and forms lasting relationships. Neighbourhood cohesion, however, also means the ability to become self-sufficient in terms of employment or circulation of resources. By way of illustration ZuidtrAnt collaborated with Opnieuw & Co, a non-profit local recycling/thrift company in the suburb of Mortsel, to renovate a building called Shed 409 into a circular hub with social impact. Thanks to the installation of 350 solar panels and in the future stationary batteries, Opnieuw & Co can offer affordable alternatives to new products, create new employment opportunities, up skill residents and distribute any of their solar energy to shops in other locations.  

To conclude being a member of an energy community has multiple long term and short term benefits. The crucial aspect is that joining an energy community is not a lonely task and existing energy cooperatives and organisations working with energy transition support this process through ongoing guidance. Energy communities are the best vehicles for a fossil free society with affordable energy. At ZuidrAnt we are happy to push forward this transition. And we want to that together with you.

Secrets of Energy Sharing

Considering the recent energy crisis and rising energy prices, the topic of affordable energy has become more prevalent than ever. Companies, governments, and individuals explore actions to reduce energy consumption. They took up the challenge of driving the energy transition, and the search for alternative sources of energy could comprise. Although the media presents a well-rounded and balanced debate, still too little space is given to energy communities (EC) and the role of governments and policies in enabling the creation of ECs in Europe.  

Why are community-led projects important? 

Within the complex and nowadays uncertain world of energy production concepts such as citizen-led, collective, or equal citizen participation can sound intimidating and daunting. Considering that the process of normalizing energy communities is still quite new, these reactions are understandable. This paper, by students from business management and environmental studies, shines a light on the concept of energy communities, which are based on a collaboration between citizens, governments, and businesses for a clean energy transition. Even though these initiatives are not so popularized, they are, as pointed out by Sara Giovanni from Energy Cities a European learning community for future-proof cities, making a great contribution to fight climate change. 

In fact, currently, the speed of climate change is accelerating so fast that, according to Elmqvist et al., we must ready ourselves to enter an age of unprecedented transformative solutions, where confusion and vagueness is avoided. Energy communities, with their participatory and transparent information exchange, give power to the people themselves. This leads to, as stated by Feinberg et al, community resilience and better adaptability to socio-ecological issues. 

What are some of the current challenges?

Prominent issues within the process of promotion of energy communities are first the lack of easy access to information, which means a need for an active search, which is difficult without having any prior knowledge. Another problem, as pointed out by Wahlund and Palm from Lund University, is the bias towards a decentralized energy model and an underrepresentation of energy communities within the mainstream media. What follows, as presented by the results of this study from two Universities in the Netherlands, is the lack of trust of the wider public towards EC’s and thus an indifference towards taking an active role in the energy transition. 

Additionally, as claimed by Feinberg et al, energy communities require social cohesion, trust, and clear communication, which can sometimes prove difficult in a globalised world. With masses of people continuously changing their place of living, cooperative action must have better organisation, more proactivity, and increased attentiveness. Knowledge exchange and knowledge distribution, as believed by John S. Edwards from Aston University in Birmingham, are also factors that urgently need development. The way information circulated among communities, as maintained by William King in his Ph.D research at Coventry University, should take into consideration theoretical frameworks, type of language used, and more approachable glossary, which can inspire citizen science.  

What are some of the existing enabling frameworks? 

On the brighter side, however, for those who already have sprouts of interest in EC’s there are various sources including this repository from European Federation for Agencies and Regions for Energy and Environment. The repository aims to give an insight into not only the examples but also various publications and updates related to Energy Communities. Another, more general example of an informative database is the Projects for Public Spaces website, which brings together a wide array of community-led projects from all over the world.  

Furthermore, considering the participative aspect of ECs, members of energy communities themselves are actors, who hold the biggest levers of change. Citizens with an in-depth understanding of the circumstances of their networks and neighbors are often involved in energy community projects already. This has resulted, as presented by this research paper from the University of Bologna, in quite a large number of attempts being made in order to create EC’s and improve communication between them. Many studies, like this one, have also been conducted in order to analyse new methods of knowledge sharing within the energy industry and changes, which can be made to adjust the sector to 21st-century standards. 

Although energy transition is a well-established and urgent matter, it is still in many aspects in its early stages. This is why projects like TANDEMS focuses on establishing methods of mainstreaming this niche market and focuses on increasing the speed with which current traditional and centralized energy systems are transformed into a community-led, collaborative effort.  

Picture by Anemone123 on Pixabay.

5 Reasons Why Energy Communities Give Power to the People

Energy communities are groups of people that come together to collectively generate, store, and manage energy. Often, they are formed with the aim of increasing access to renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and biogas generators, lowering energy costs, and finally reducing a neighbourhood’s impact on the environment. By pooling their resources, knowledge, and experience, energy communities create more sustainable and resilient energy systems than would be possible at the individual level. They may also invest in energy storage technologies such as batteries, which allow them to capture excess energy and use it later when demand is higher. By doing so, energy communities reduce their reliance on traditional energy sources and lower their carbon footprint. 

Here are five reasons why energy communities allow people to take back control of their energy sources and become independent energy providers and consumers.  

1. Energy communities decrease energy costs

In an energy market dominated by large-scale players, energy communities building on renewable energy sources have a great potential to significantly reduce the members’ energy bills. Building on the collective rather than the individual, the prices for both, energy production and purchase are lower. Some energy communities produce and sell to customers at wholesale prices. For example, Helsingin Energia, an energy community in Helsinki, Finland, offers electricity tariffs up to 25% cheaper than traditional local energy providers. That’s as if you would get electricity but without paying VAT. 

2. Energy communities allow members to have a say in how their energy is produced and distributed 

With the gas and electricity shortage expected for winter 2022/2023, an increasing amount of people have become aware of the fact, that they do not really have a say about their electricity. Indeed, many have experienced a maximum of dependency. This is less true for people engaged in energy communities. As members they can actively participate in decision-making processes – the very basis for ‘controlling’ or ‘being in power’ of their own energy usage. To pick yet another example from outside the TANDEMs project, the Samso Energy Academy in Denmark empowers community members to own and operate wind turbines, solar panels, and district heating systems. Have a look at their website; they have an inspiring collection of talks on sustainable energy and energy communities! 

3. Energy communities encourage the use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower

It is untrue to assume that we will have to wait for years until we have something to gain from cutting CO2 emissions. As a matter of fact, every reduction of the reliance on non-renewable sources for energy production that contributes to a cleaner planet today gives a little more autonomy for other decisions that will be pressing in the upcoming years. Surely, power to the people might be a quite general claim at this stake. It is not said that the newly evolved scope for action plays out in your energy community. To those arguing reducing here is nonsense while Asian countries increase air pollution: Do you really believe atmosphere, air, and pollution stop at the border? 

4. Energy communities encourage energy efficiency by providing members with advice and support to reduce their energy consumption

Knowledge is power and luckily there are many advisors and organisations, which navigate citizens through setting up energy communities. For instance, French Energies POSIT’IF offers free energy audits to its community members and provides personalised recommendations on how to reduce energy usage. Other projects, such as Newcomer – Exploring New Energy Communities, assess the regulatory, institutional, and social conditions to facilitate learnings on a meta, or more precisely, supra-local level. 

5. Energy Communities create jobs 

We’ve started with economy. We end with economy. Hovering over the EU Centres for Development of Vocational Training map of occupation needs in Europe, you’ll quickly find out that the only country in Europe where mining personnel is still hired is Bulgaria. For Czechia and the Northwest region, a 2021 published study of the European Greens (that are obviously not the representatives of coal mining industries) expect 10,000 jobs in the mining sector to be soon replaced by more than 20,000 jobs in renewable energy. The reason: decentral energy harvesting. Indeed, energy communities provide job opportunities for residents in various areas such as installation, maintenance, and customer service. 

Overall, energy communities empower citizens by giving them control over their energy usage. It seems almost ridiculous to assume, they have the potential to empower people. Instead, they do so on an everyday basis already. Energy communities create jobs and decrease the cost of energy. They allow for a minimum scope of action and open windows of opportunity to fight climate change. Finally, they give communities a voice and reduce dependency. The latter is the very essence of empowerment.

Image by Cornell Frühauf from Pixabay

Deviating Legal Frameworks for Energy Communities in Europe

Energy communities have gained momentum in Europe in recent years. They are considered as crucial tools in meeting the goals of the European Union’s clean energy transition, such as improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. However, there appears to be a lack of a uniform legal framework among European Union member states for energy communities, raising some concerns. This article will explore the deviating legal frameworks that are in place for energy communities all over Europe and suggest how deviations might be overcome.

What are Energy Communities?

Energy communities are groups of individuals or organizations that come together and jointly develop, manage, or own energy projects in their community. Actually, the European Union provides two definitions of energy communities: „Citizen Energy Communities“ and „Renewable Energy Communities.“ Both definitions put an emphasis on participation and effective control by citizens, local authorities, and smaller businesses. Large-scale energy providers and industries are not included in these definitions. In energy communities, members pool their financial resources to invest in renewable energy projects such as solar or wind power. Energy produced by these projects is sold back to the grid, and profits are returned to the members. An already existing example of this, which is also a TANDEMS pilot project, is in Otterbeek, Mechelen (Belgium). It is an energy community set up in a social housing area by Klimaan. 

The Problem of Deviating Legal Frameworks

Energy communities’ participation in the clean energy transition requires a supportive legal framework, which should be designed, considering the criteria of simple and clear administrative procedures, non-discrimination of actors, legal certainty and predictability of the framework, the stability of remuneration, and financing possibilities. Within the European Union, the regulatory framework and support for energy communities depend on individual country policies. In some countries, policies provide little or no support, while in others, policies are more supportive, providing some significant financial incentives. To better grasp the diversity of the policy frameworks enabling energy communities in Europe, it is recommendable to have a look at the RESCoop Transposition Tracker. It is easily accessible through a color-coded map and provides detailed information about each member state. Finally, it shows that there is a lack of uniformity or standardization in the legal framework surrounding energy communities in Europe.

Let‘s pin that down. For instance, in Germany, renewable energy cooperatives and citizen energy partnerships are widely used, with the strong backing of the Renewable Energy Act, which provides incentives such as feed-in tariffs and priority access to the grid for renewable energy producers. In contrast, in Italy, although there is a policy for Energy Communities, it’s not as supportive in terms of the incentives it provides. Similarly, in Portugal, there is no specific law for Energy Communities, and therefore, Energy Communities are not recognized legally. To this end, the deviations in the legal framework across EU Member states pose a challenge for cross-country collaboration in general, but also for the TANDEMS project. 

Possible Solutions to Deviations in Legal Framework

Deviating legal frameworks have been identified as a major obstacle for the realization of renewable energy projects in energy communities. Common legal standards might boost the development of energy communities. At the same time, they might reduce flexibility to react on local specificities, landscapes and community structures. A top-down, one-size-fits-all approach is likely to fail.

To overcome deviations in the legal framework, EU member states should thus develop a regulatory framework that encourages the development of local energy communities. This action may be led by the European Commission or Parliament – what is important though, is to ensure all relevant stakeholders (that are citizens not industries) have a say. The aim of such a framework should be to remove existing barriers and provide supportive measures that incentivize the development of energy communities. It should encourage cross-border cooperation and incentivize participation in the clean energy transition. 

Photo by Mike van Schoonderwalt