eExperts say urope’s rapid transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future will not happen without the participation and participation of citizens who produce and consume energy locally — and across the continent, there are signs that it is happening.
Wildfires, droughts and record heat waves fueled by climate collapses have combined with rising gas and electricity prices, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to give a new impetus to the shift to alternative and renewable sources.
From solar panels in the Netherlands to biomass stoves in Spain, communities across Europe are increasingly making, consuming and selling their own energy, a trend the European Union sees as vital if the union is to achieve its climate goals.
According to the latest data, 2 million Europeans now participate in 7,000 local energy communities across the continent, with their numbers growing rapidly since then. EU Directives to Promote Clean Energy and Energy Societies They 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 electricity production and distribution systems—power plants and grids—simply will not be able to adequately handle the massive increase in demand.
“At least, they are not alone,” said Gonzalo Mendes, a senior researcher and energy systems modeler from LUT University in Finland and part of an initiative funded by the European Commission, GRETA, and is working to identify and enable what he called “energy citizenship.”
The only way forward, Mendes said, is to “decentralize, produce and consume more energy locally using sources such as solar and wind — and promote storage and smart solutions for efficient energy management.” It all means engaging ordinary citizens.
Some societies have operated successfully for years. The Beira Beira neighborhood in San Sebastian, Spain has been a cooperative providing hot water and community heating to more than 500 members since 1985.
One of the projects GRETA is considering, the group, known as Ur Beroa, has since moved on with the times, ditching heating oil for natural gas and adding a cogeneration system — to produce both heat and electricity, which it sells to the grid — 10 years ago, followed by a biomass boiler. and solar panels.
“The first goal of solar energy is the self-consumption of 100 households,” said board member Juan Luis Lorenz. “The next step, next year, will be green hydrogen, to replace a portion of our current gas consumption. Obviously, the goal now is complete decarbonization.”
Lorenz said OR Beira has been able to freeze its members’ heating and hot water bills this year thanks to revenue from electricity sales, and has been offering “the cheapest prices in town. My son lives outside of Beira Beira, and his bills have exploded.”
But if price is a great incentive 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 may be challenging individually. There is a sense of control over something important in your life.”
As it stands, Europe is “nowhere close” to meeting its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% in the next eight years, Mendes said, unless “we urgently act on the role that ordinary citizens have to play.” And to get there, we need to explicitly acknowledge the social aspect of energy transmission.”
All of the research on peer-to-peer energy sharing models has shown that they are “more accessible, democratic, collaborative, and socially just” than traditional top-to-earth energy markets, said Laurian Klein, an academic expert on energy communities who now works with Cleanwatts. lowest.
“Essentially, they thrive on social interdependence among end users, rather than on competing economic self-interests,” he said. “It promotes positive social values, and it really promotes empowerment and social participation.”
Fortunately, technology is now making that possible. Michael Pinto of CleanWatts, which has arranged financing, design and installation for electricity production, storage and circulation, as well as consumption control and optimization, for 100 communities in Portugal – with 2,000 inquiries awaiting, said Michael Pinto of CleanWatts.
“You have needs for electricity that will double and grids that will not adapt. But you also have sustainable components – solar panels – that are now competitive, and smart technology to efficiently measure, manage and balance production, storage and consumption.
This means that the options are essentially either “blackouts and massive fluctuations, completely rebuilding national grids,” Pinto said, or “changing the way electricity is produced, delivered and consumed. More agile, more resourceful. These are local energy communities.”
The EU directive on energy communities has been incorporated into national law around the bloc at different speeds and with different incentives, but the ideal starting scenario for a new project, Pinto said, was “for example, a large warehouse: big, big roof, low energy use”.
In Portugal, this warehouse – projects that also include barracks, football clubs and village schools – can expect a 20% to 30% discount on electricity bills; In Austria he will receive a cashback. The excess 80% you produce but don’t use can be sold to the locals and beyond.
“There are tens of thousands of municipalities in the European Union,” Pinto said. There are 8,000 in Italy alone – about 5,000 of them have a population of less than 5,000. The potential here is huge. But it should be – the challenge is also enormous.”
In the Netherlands, Stephen 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 pace of the green transition.
The cooperative owns two solar parks totaling more than 10,000 panels, as well as smaller sites in homes and buildings across the city, to generate green electricity which it also sells to a sustainable energy provider while investing the profits back into the group.
It also provides assistance with insulation and fixtures. Volkers said the Dutch government’s targets – 50% community-owned and 30% sustainably generated – underscore the belief that “we will not reach our sustainability goals without citizen participation”.
Elsewhere, the potential is still being explored. In Bologna, Italy, a Green Energy Community Project (GECO) involving the University, the municipality, residents’ associations, the Regional Energy Agency and other bodies has started since 2019 in the northeastern Bilastro Rovere region.
“What’s interesting is that these are two areas in one,” said Martina Massari of the University of Bologna’s Department of Architecture, who is leading the university’s participation in the GRETA project. Bellaastro is a residential area dating back to the 1960s – 6800 people, plenty of social housing, and a mixed population.
“Rovere, across the railways, is an industrial district, lots of factories and warehouses – and the largest solar power plant in the European Union is on industrial rooftops. They are slowly making housing blocks more energy efficient, which is essential, and interest among the residents is growing rapidly. with rising energy prices.
It was a pilot project, “like a living lab,” said Carlo Alberto Nucci, professor of electrical power systems at the university and technical officer of the project, and that recent government incentives for Italy’s local energy communities will make a big difference.
“The key thing is that we start producing energy where it is being consumed, and we can do that now because of renewables,” he said, adding that in the end, about 20% of the energy produced in cities should come from energy communities.
Nucci said smart meters, connected devices and end-user applications will be critical to the success of the system. “Clever The application can automatically turn on your home appliances, by choosing The best moment for you – and for the efficiency of society at large – to use the washing machine, for example.
“A lot of this really has to do with the concept that energy is valuable, that information about it really matters, and that virtuous energy behaviors can make a difference — for both individuals and society. This is all completely new.”
Bologna’s deputy mayor, Anna-Lisa Boni, said the project “was clearly a brilliant idea” but was postponed in part due to the delayed legislative process at the national level and bureaucracy. “The legal framework is very complex, the devil is in the details – what happens with different partner VAT systems, for example,” she said.
Ultimately, more than 80% of households in the European Union could take an active role in the energy transition, Mendes said: “Energy citizenship, we call it. Obviously, levels of awareness and participation will vary. But it is all about agency.”