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Energy communities bring renewable energy to the people

The use of renewable sources makes it possible to bring energy production closer to the point of consumption (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

from Emanuela Barbirollo

Traditional energy production in developed economies involves importing large quantities of oil and gas from a small number of suppliers. Renewable energy systems under new community ownership structures are making their way across Europe. The aim is to obtain cheap, clean and secure energy by bringing the production of electricity closer to the people who will use it.

Squeezed between the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and climate change, the European energy system is experiencing an unprecedented crisis. Bill-paying consumers are dealing with skyrocketing energy prices that show no sign of abating. In the second half of 2021, average electricity (and gas) prices in the EU rose by more than 11% compared to the same period in 2020, according to Eurostat electricity price statistics. That was before the geopolitical crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February triggered the imposition of sanctions that further squeezed energy supplies.

The European Green Deal strategy, which plans to decarbonise energy production in the European Union, has been reinforced by the REPowerEU plan to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels. This combination will accelerate the transition to a green economy. “In this respect, the Ukrainian crisis can be seen as a catalyst for the transition to renewable energy,” says Nicolien van der Greep of the NEWCOMERS project.

One response to the global energy challenge is emerging at the local and regional level through clean energy communities. These are groups of people who voluntarily pool their resources for the joint production of electricity. The goal of NEWCOMERS is to discover successful and sustainable business models in emerging clean energy communities. A senior researcher at the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam, Van der Greep argues that energy communities “contribute to citizens’ better awareness of energy issues and give them the perspective to take action themselves “.

Import of energy

Heating and cooling alone use 30% of energy in Europe. To meet this demand, around 60% of EU energy needs are met by imports, with over 66% of EU energy imports in 2020 being petroleum products, followed by gas and coal. Instead of importing fossil fuels from long distances, the growth in the use of renewable sources makes it possible to produce energy closer to where it is consumed.

The main types of renewable energy produced in energy communities are solar, wind and hydro, but other sources such as hydrogen, geothermal and district heating are increasingly being tested and implemented. Energy community members typically consume the energy produced and may develop other activities—depending on local conditions—such as car sharing, community gardens, and green roofs.

The NEWCOMERS project highlights the types of policy environments in which energy communities thrive, how actors are organized, the technologies used and how business models work. It also analyzes the value that the energy community creates for members and wider society, as well as the effect that membership has on energy behaviour.

“In addition to helping to combat the climate crisis, energy communities also create value economically and socially,” says Van der Graep. “They can create local jobs and foster social cohesion.” The benefits of this approach are not limited to providing independence from pollution sources—they lead to tangible social change.

The results of the NEWCOMERS research show that there are significant differences in awareness levels between European countries. According to Van der Greep, this poses challenges for the creation of supportive policies and laws in EU member states. It also complicates subsidy schemes that support good business practices and services that help people create and operate energy communities.

“We hope that our findings will contribute to some policy changes that are urgently needed,” says Van der Greep, who has produced a series of policy recommendations and a brief for policymakers in Europe alongside similar projects.

Distributed energy

Dr. Maria Rosaria Di Nucci coordinates the COME RES project, which aims to facilitate the spread of renewable energy communities in nine EU countries and support the implementation of a regulatory framework for these communities. For this purpose, the project will initiate processes of learning and exchange of information between regions with advanced development of renewable energy communities and regions with development potential. In each country there is a target region and a training region.

“Renewable energy communities are important conduits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making a positive social, environmental and economic impact,” says Di Nucci. “They also promote regional and rural development.”

“The idea is an evolution from an energy system based on large centralized power plants to a citizen-led model of distributed energy production based on renewable energy sources, which is still a socio-political and regulatory challenge in most European countries,” says Di Nucci.

The distinguishing feature of COME RES and the operational engine of the project are the nine so-called “national information desks”. They can be seen as informal forums for dialogue involving the project partners in the country, energy community organizations, other key actors and market participants from specific target regions and beyond. They organize thematic conversations and policy roundtables aimed at creating solutions to overcome existing obstacles to the growth of energy communities.

COME RES also contributes to policy making through policy labs, action plan proposals, policy recommendations and stakeholder engagement. Some fundamental changes are needed “if the energy transition is to continue to be implemented locally and democratically.” Di Nucci talked about simplifying financing, reducing bureaucratic obstacles and reforming the tendering model for renewable energy projects.

Most energy communities adopt the legal form of cooperatives, but they can also take the form of associations or foundations. Some have developed specific approaches to include marginalized groups and people living in energy poverty.

For the success of energy communities, citizen participation is most important. The W4RES project works to increase the participation of women in supporting and accelerating market penetration of renewable energy sources. By the end of the project, a total of around 50-60 projects and initiatives for the use of energy from renewable sources for heating and cooling in eight countries are expected to be supported.

Agents of change

“The point of view of the W4RES project is that women as agents of change can have a decisive role in the energy transition,” says W4RES coordinator Janis Konstas. Energy communities need to involve more women in their organizational structures and leadership.

“To bring about real change, energy access and the energy sector must be linked to an agenda that challenges stereotypes about women,” says Konstas. “And thereby promoting their rights, dignity and visibility in their various roles as consumers, producers, investors, experts and agents of change.”

Although a relatively new innovation, renewable energy communities hold enormous potential. Their development will have a strong impact on the energy transition and the everyday life of European citizens.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. It was originally published in Horizon, the EU’s research and innovation journal.

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