EExperts say Europe’s rapid transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future will not happen without the commitment and involvement of citizens who produce and consume energy locally – and across the continent , there are signs that this is happening.
A summer of wildfires, drought and record heat waves fueled by a worsening climate combined with soaring gas and electricity prices, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, to give new urgency to the transition to alternative and renewable sources.
From solar panels in the Netherlands to biomass burners in Spain, communities across Europe are increasingly making, consuming and selling their own energy, a trend the EU sees as vital if the bloc is to achieve its goals. climatic.
According to the latest data, 2 million Europeans are now involved in 7,000 local energy communities across the continent, and the number has been growing rapidly since then. EU directives promoting clean energy and energy communities were introduced in 2018 and 2019.
They will be key to Europe’s green transition because, as heat pumps replace gas boilers and electric vehicles replace internal combustion engines, highly centralized power generation and distribution systems – power plants and grids – simply won’t be able to adequately handle the huge increase in demand.
“At least not alone,” said Gonçalo Mendes, a senior researcher and modeler of energy systems at LUT University in Finland and a member of a European Commission-funded initiative, GRETA, which is working to define and enable what he called “energy citizenship”. ”.
The only way forward, Mendes said, is “to decentralize more and more, to produce and consume more energy locally with sources like solar and wind – and to boost storage and smart solutions for efficient energy management. All of this means involving ordinary citizens.
Some communities have been operating successfully for years. Since 1985, the Bera Bera district of San Sebastián in Spain has had a cooperative providing hot water and collective heating to its more than 500 members.
One of the projects studied by GRETA, the collective, known as Ur Beroa, has since moved with the times, abandoning fuel oil for natural gas and adding a cogeneration system – to produce both heat and electricity, which he resells to the network – 10 years ago, followed by a biomass boiler and solar panels.
“The first objective for solar energy is self-consumption for 100 families,” said board member Juan Luis Llorens. “The next step, next year, will be green hydrogen, to replace part of our current gas consumption. The objective now is obviously complete decarbonization.
Llorens said Ur Beroa had been able to freeze its members’ heating and hot water bills this year thanks to income from the sale of electricity and offered “the cheapest prices in town.” My son lives outside Bera Bera and his bills have skyrocketed”.
But while price is a big motivator for members, other aspects play a major role. “We make our own decisions,” he said. “For those who care about the environment, we are making progress collectively, in a way that would be difficult individually. There is a feeling of being in control of something important in your life.
As things stand, Europe is “far from reaching” its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% over the next eight years, Mendes said, unless “we urgently work on the role that ordinary citizens will have to play. And to get there, we need to explicitly recognize the social side of the energy transition.
Lurian Klein, an academic energy community expert now working with Cleanwatts, said all research into peer-to-peer energy-sharing models has shown them to be “much more accessible, democratized, collaborative and socially just” than traditional top-down energy markets.
“Fundamentally, they thrive on social interdependence among end users, rather than competing economic interests,” he said. “They reinforce positive social values, really build empowerment and social engagement.”
Fortunately, technology now makes this possible. “A lot of things come together,” said Michael Pinto of CleanWatts, who arranged the financing, designed and installed systems to generate, store and exchange electricity, as well as control and optimize consumption, for 100 communities in Portugal. – with another 2,000 applications pending. .
“You have electricity needs that will double and networks that will not suffice. But now you also have sustainable elements – solar panels – which are now competitive, and smart technology to efficiently measure, manage and balance production, storage and consumption.
That means the options are essentially either “blackouts and massive volatility, and completely rebuilding national grids,” Pinto said, or “changing the way electricity is generated, delivered and consumed.” More agile, more ingenious. These are the local energy communities.
EU directives on energy communities are being incorporated into national legislation around the bloc at different speeds and with different incentives, but an ideal starting scenario for a new project, Pinto said, was “say, a big warehouse: large, large roof, low energy use”.
In Portugal, this warehouse – projects also concern barracks, football clubs and village schools – can expect a reduction of 20 to 30% on its electricity bills; in Austria, he would get cash back. And the 80% of surplus that it produces but does not use can be resold to the locals, and beyond.
“There are tens of thousands of municipalities in the EU,” Pinto said. “There are 8,000 in Italy alone, around 5,000 of them with less than 5,000 inhabitants. The potential here is simply huge. But it has to be – the challenge is huge too.
In the Netherlands, Steven Volkers of Grunneger Power in Groningen, which has 2,500 members, said the decade-old cooperative was born out of people‘s “passion and frustration” at the slow green transition.
The cooperative has two solar parks totaling more than 10,000 panels, as well as smaller sites on homes and buildings across the city, generating green electricity which it also sells to a sustainable energy supplier with profits reinvested in the collective.
It also offers insulation and installation assistance. The Dutch government’s targets – 50% community-owned electricity and 30% sustainably generated electricity – underline the belief that “we will not achieve sustainability goals without citizen participation,” Volkers said. .
Elsewhere, the potential is still being explored. In Bologna, Italy, a community green energy project (GECO) involving the university, the municipality, residents’ associations, the regional energy agency and other bodies has been underway since 2019 in the northeast district of Pilastro-Roveri.
“What’s interesting is that it’s actually two neighborhoods in one,” said Martina Massari of the University of Bologna’s architecture department, who is leading the university’s involvement in the GRETA project. “Pilastro is a residential area from the 1960s – 6,800 inhabitants, lots of social housing, mixed populations.
“Roveri, across the railway tracks, is industrial, with many factories, warehouses – and the EU’s largest solar power plant on industrial rooftops. They are slowly making housing blocks more energy efficient, which is essential, and interest from residents is growing rapidly as energy prices rise.
Carlo Alberto Nucci, professor of electrical power systems at the university and technical manager of the project, said it was a pilot project, “like a living laboratory”, and that recent government incentives for local energy communities in Italy would make a significant difference.
“What is fundamental is that we start producing energy where it is consumed, and we can do it now thanks to renewable energy,” he said, adding that eventually about 20% of the energy produced in cities should come from energy communities.
Smart meters, connected devices and end-user apps will be critical to the system’s success, Nucci said. “A clever the application can automatically turn on your home appliances, choosing the best time for you – and for the efficiency of the whole community – to use your washing machine, for example.
“A lot of it is really about the concept that energy has value, that information about it is really important, and that virtuous energy behaviors can absolutely make a difference – for individuals and the community. All of this is quite new.
Bologna deputy mayor Anna Lisa Boni said the project was “clearly a fantastic idea” but was partly blocked by a delayed national legislative process and bureaucracy. “The legal framework is very complex, the devil is in the details – what happens with the partners’ different VAT systems, for example,” she said.
Ultimately, Mendes said, more than 80% of EU households could play an active role in the energy transition: “Energy citizenship, we call it. Obviously, the levels of awareness and engagement will be different. But it’s all about agency.