Discovering the Municipality of Gabrovo: Energy Communities in Bulgaria

Interview with Todor Popov, a lawyer with experience in project management for energy efficiency, sustainable management and clean energy and Vanya Lazarova, an expert in citizen participation and the use of ‘One-Stop-Shop’ model* in the field of European projects.  

Can you introduce us to Gabrovo Municipality and tell us why did you decide to participate in TANDEMS? 

Gabrovo, located in central Bulgaria, is a pioneer and leader in the field of energy efficiency and energy consumption optimisation. We opened the first passive kindergarten in Bulgaria or the first ESCO street lighting contract (Energy Savings Performance Contract). Gabrovo is Green Leaf award winner in 2021 and among the first 100 climate neutral EU cities by 2030. Hence, we have decided to participate in TANDEMS. TANDEMS aims to promote the development of energy communities as means of energy transition. We are looking forward to involving citizens, engaging local governments and policy makers. This is very important for a sustainable energy transition. However, apart from TANDEMS we partner also in another LIFE project; namely Life LOOPS. This project focuses on reducing regulatory barriers to energy development. It explores options for wind, biomass, microhydro as well as clean transport.  

Why do you think it is important to discuss and tackle clean energy, energy transition and energy communities?

The theme of energy transition and energy communities was presented as a natural continuation of policies to reduce the carbon footprint of human activity, as an opportunity to improve the economic and social situation of the local community, which from a consumer becomes an energy producer. Through energy communities, independence and stability are achieved. Currently in Bulgaria there are not so many restrictions to energy communities since there is a lack of legislative framework. On the other hand, this exact lack of legislation is also a huge challenge and obstacle for us.

Another difficulty is overcoming the lobbying of large energy companies. These companies have no interest in involving citizens and local communities as players in the energy market. This is quite the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. Citizens must be aware of their role and their opportunities. This is why which is why it is important to talk about this topic.  

Did you receive any feedback from citizens, municipalities or other actors? 

Feedback is still scarce. People do not have enough knowledge and information on the topic. Right now we can see that there is some positive some sceptical reaction to our work. I believe, however, that when we deepen our work with citizens, we will receive more concrete reaction. On the 27th and 28th of April we held a conference in Gabrovo entitled ‘Cooperation for the implementation of green policies’. Representatives of local companies, local authorities and NGO’s attended the conference. The Gabrovo Municipality was represented by Todor, who is the director of administrative, legal and information services, Zhana Bastreva and Maria Radoycheva, chief experts in ‘Infrastructure and Ecology.  

Cooperation for the Implementation of Green Policies

We presented Gabrovo’s policies in the field of environmental protection. Among our main themes was the topic of energy efficiency, renewable energy and opportunities for local communities. We discussed ways to collaborate in order to achieve clean, affordable and secure energy- in the form of energy communities. We also of course presented TANDEMS and LifeLOOP projects, their objectives and benefits as well as any challenges they entail.  

What are your next steps? 

We plan to hold a number of thematic meetings with citizens and representatives of different communities. We plan to invite trade unions, condominiums, small and medium sized enterprises, schools and so on. On 2nd of May we had an expert meeting between Municipality of Gabrovo and EnEffect, who is our partner. We discussed a potential pilot project, which would involve working with citizens. Our next step in this field would be scheduling a meeting with the citizens and several follow-up meetings in June. We hope to launch the implementation of the first pilor community in June.  

*One-Stop-Shop is a model offering multiple services in a centralized location. Citizens can access services in one place rather than in many dispersed places.  

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.