The challenges, needs and ideas in regard to citizen engagement.

Report based on interviews conducted by DuneWorks for Work Package 4.

In February and March, Duneworks, the leader of Work Package 4 (WP4) titled ‘Strengthening and supporting citizen initiatives’, conducted interviews with all partners, asking them about the challenges, needs and ideas regarding citizen engagement in EC (Energy Communities). The article below is a summary of those results, giving the insight into the work of TANDEMS, but also an overview of what upcoming or existing EC’s should consider.

What are the challenges?

Due to the current geo-political circumstances the energy market and therefore everyone’s energy situation is very uncertain. Introducing the concept of a shared renewable energy model, no matter how beneficial to the community, can be met with apprehension laced with scepticism or even resistance. Many citizens feel safety when faced with familiarity. Therefore even though big energy companies raise prices in an often uncontrolled manner, causing more financial damage, citizens give them more support. After all, they have been primary energy providers for generations. Conversely energy communities are models, which in the legislative and financial world are novel. They often lack legislative frameworks or comprehensible business strategies. This, as assessed by partners, causes potential members to see more precariousness rather than stability.

Another important aspect is diversity. Energy transition touches everyone, but in a different way. On top of that each community consists of a huge variety of people from all kinds of backgrounds. When setting up an energy community, the needs of  each member have to be clarified, understood and agreed on. This, as asserted by the interviewees, can be demanding. Therefore the process of ‘putting the foot in’ is a big challenge. That’s because it opens up the question: How can we gain trust?

What are the needs?

Through deliberation the partners realized that engaging so-called ambassadors they can develop trust in energy communities. These are citizens, who are embedded in a certain community, but work closely with the EC’s and mediate any communication. These ambassadors are crucial. That’s because the levels of engagement of citizens can differ depending on the extent of involvement they want to have. Some members can choose to be more passive and have less responsibilities. Others want to take a more active role. In any case there always need to be representatives, who can act as main organisers, which keeps the EC well functioning.

Other identified needs included: improving the quality of meetings to less technical and finding the optimal time for all attendees. Also setting up tailored models of collaboration that work for everyone. Finally widening accessibility to a much wide-ranging group of people, including vulnerable households.

What are the needs?

Through the interviews the WP4 leader, Duneworks managed to compile some ideas, which can make citizen engagement more effective. One of the most prominent ones is the introduction of ambassadors, who understand the needs of their fellow residents. With the help of EC’s as well as municipalities, support citizens throughout each step, easing transition fear. The ambassador keeps close contact with the residents. Their tasks include holding internal meetings and collecting information about doubts, capabilities, time availability and so on.

Another important idea was the assertion of transparency. TANDEMS partners agreed that the EC’s as well as the municipality involved should provide full transparency about participation trajectory meaning. Citizens must have full understanding of the extent to which they can participate, what participation involves or how adjustable the whole process is. It is also important to involve citizens in the process at an early stage, already, during ideation and planning. It also helps when the communication is much more focused per target group, in terms of comprehensibility, but also recognition of what is being asked, what involvement is needed and what this practically means for the target group(s). 

Developing from this point WP4 leaders found out that citizen engagement can be improved by introducing a more appealing narrative, where citizens are able to attend meetings which apart from technicalities also show other examples of EC’s, their journeys and even precedents from other countries.

Through identifying the challenges and needs of citizen engagement, the partners, regardless of their location, pinned down the above ideas as most important in citizen engagement. The implementation of them, however requires a development of a coherent plan that introduces methods and instruments, which is what the TANDEMS consortium continues to work on.

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.