Europe’s renewable energy transition is a change in many aspects. But it’s not just technical. It’s also social. This is why putting people at the heart of energy transitions is important. It makes empowering people key to making the energy transition a European success. “Energy communities are important because they put citizens at the heart of energy transitions,” said EU-funded NEWCOMERS project coordinator Nicolien van der Grijp. She is an environmental policy researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) of VU Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “Energy communities have the potential to make the energy transitions in Europe more social and equitable,” she added. Since energy communities are initiatives led by citizens, they inspire citizen-driven energy actions and make it easier for citizens to participate actively in the transformation of energy systems. They contribute to increasing public acceptance of renewable energy projects, ultimately increasing energy efficiency and lowering electricity bills.
From school rooftops to community wind farms
Most energy communities are producing renewable energy. The initiatives are many and varied and include rooftop solar projects at schools and community wind turbine cooperatives. “Some energy communities have developed specific programmes to support marginalised groups and people living in energy poverty,” added van der Grijp. “Examples include energy coaches that give advice about cost-effective measures to isolate homes, and low-cost rental schemes for solar panels and energy-efficient household equipment.” With the current energy crisis, the need for strong citizen support of energy transitions has become even more urgent. EU ambitions regarding energy communities are also high and can be seen in policies aiming to scale-up and speed-up renewable energy in power generation – from the European Green Deal to the recently launched REPowerEU plan. NEWCOMERS highlighted the policy contexts in which energy communities flourish and identified hindering and stimulating factors. While doing so, the project researchers distinguished between countries with a relatively well-developed energy community sector and those that are still in an initial state.
Gap between ambition and awareness
A survey carried out by the project in 9 countries (Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Slovenia and the United Kingdom) revealed a low level of awareness. For instance, less than 10 % of citizens in France said they are aware of energy communities. In the Netherlands, three in 10 said they knew about such initiatives. The country differences are mainly attributed to various factors, such as existing energy infrastructures, political preferences, policies and regulations, socio-cultural factors, perceptions about cooperatives and much more. “But generally speaking, clean energy communities are a niche phenomenon that still has to become known among the general population,” explained co-coordinator Julia Blasch, an environmental economist at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM). “What gives a positive outlook is European citizens’ perception of the importance of energy communities in the clean energy transition. More than 80 % of the survey respondents considered energy communities to be ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for moving towards a cleaner energy system.” With the aim to identify how new types of energy communities operate, and in what regulatory, institutional and social conditions they emerge and thrive, the research uncovered the need for more supportive policies in EU Member States. This includes legal definitions that are fit-for-purpose, subsidy schemes that enable sound business cases, and dedicated services to assist citizens in setting up and operating energy communities. “It all starts with raising awareness for the benefits of energy communities, among citizens, among policymakers and among local and regional public authorities,” said Blasch. “Having the support of the latter is often crucial for the success of energy communities. This is what our research on how energy communities emerge and operate showed.” To grow interest and boost awareness among EU citizens, NEWCOMERS created a new source of information: the Our-Energy.eu awareness raising platform. It offers short interactive presentations about the project’s research, and information about energy communities. Van der Grijp sums up the project’s policy recommendations in three words: recognise, prioritise and simplify. “This includes recognising the multiple benefits of energy communities offer to their members and to the local communities, to prioritise them through offering clear definitions and dedicated policy support, and to simplify existing legislation as complex regulations and bureaucracy are among the greatest barriers.”
NEWCOMERS, clean energy, communities, citizens, renewable, environment