The future of Energy Communities.

In Karen Trant’s vision of the future, energy communities (EC) are like huddles of Penguins, which come together in harsh winters in order to share heat and ensure the survival of many. Through this metaphor, the director of Customer Policy and Protection at Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), envisions an energy transition, which is just, fair, collaborative and offers a supportive and safe energy environment. However for this hopeful vision to come to fruition, a lot of political, economic and social changes must take place. In this article we dig deeply into the vision for the future of energy communities and what still needs to be done to achieve it. 

Source: Quanta Magazine
Vision of the future.

While envisioning the future of energy communities, one must distinguish between a dream and a realistic prediction. These both work together, but they are not the same. One of them represents a manifestation. The other gives an insight on what energy communities must be in order for humanity to be able to cope with the constantly developing energy and environmental crisis. During the Rural Energy Communities and Energy Communities Repository joint conference in 2023, experts came together to discuss both of these future visions. Similarly to Karen Trant, Cilou Bertin from Energie Samen in the Netherlands, sees the future in a more metaphorical way, comparing EC’s to fruit forests. All diverse players have a specific role, but they also benefit each other, and work together in a localised environment.

The partners at TANDEMS envision the future EC’s as democratic, decentralized, but collaborative forms of energy production and sharing. Energy communities should be based on the principles of social cohesion and autonomy. They should encompass a collaborative and mutually advantageous relationship with municipalities or other stakeholders. On an economic level EC’s should become one of the norms of energy production that coexist with other energy market actors. Máirtín Ó Méalóid, from Energy Communities Tipperary Cooperative (ECTC), suggests that EC’s ought to become not just an alternative to the mainstream of the energy system, but be a part of the ‘normality’. We should recognise EC’s as an integral part of the solution to the current energy crisis. 

What needs to be done? Rules and Regulations.

Experts agree that in order to reach this vision of energy communities, we need to make much more efforts. According to Karen Trant, we are at the beginning of growth and development. We still have scalable, but very high mountains to climb. One of those mountains is policy frameworks. In order to achieve a certain vision of energy communities, governments and decision makers should introduce a clear and comprehensive set of rules. Regulations should enable the formation and operation of energy communities. This also includes elements such as market access, financial models and even capacity building or collaborative models. In fact, research organisations and other multipliers of clean energy transition can and should also contribute to policy shaping by introducing policy briefs, which offer summarized and informed policy recommendations.

VITO, for example, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research and a TANDEMS partner, works on the development of an Open Collaboration Model through pilot project work. They test and assess the best strategies for collaboration between municipalities, energy communities and citizens. VITO wants to achieve harmonious and mutually beneficial cooperation. These models can then be used as precedents for shaping new regulations or frameworks of working. 

What needs to be done? Funding

Another currently important hurdle for energy communities is equity. According to Máirtín Ó Méalóid, problems with unequal distribution of resources or money. lace the energy market. According to Máirtín ‘many energy communities spend their time worrying about where to get funding from rather than focusing on the important, visionary aspects of their work’. Equal and fair distribution of funds is essential for communities to become bigger players on the energy market. Additionally it helps them have the same share of influence as well as creditworthiness as other actors. Access to financing is furthermore allowing EC’s to have the same creditworthiness of larger energy developments. 

Addressing policy frameworks and funding is fundamental to achieving other important changes such as public awareness, participation and partnerships. By creating supportive policies, the energy market is able to create an environment of growth and popularity for energy communities. This way in the future the energy system can be resilient, sustainable and empowering for citizens.