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.