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29-10-2014

From evolution to revolution

“Now is the moment for Europeans to challenge their leaders on their energy choices, and in the case of the UK, for example, now is the time to get angry,” says Josh Roberts. He is clear that “opting to support a hugely expensive nuclear reactor in the UK and taking away individuals’ property rights in favour of shale gas drilling” are reasons enough for getting mad.

Roberts cites the example of Denmark, where people rose up in the 1970s to reject government plans to replace fossil fuels with nuclear. Instead, nuclear was replaced by community energy projects. Today, 70-80 per cent of all wind turbines are owned by citizens, and by 2050, the country plans to meet 100 per cent of its energy needs with renewables “Now is the time that community energy can bring about change across Europe,” says Roberts.

And people are listening. Despite the lack of ambition in last week’s 2030 energy and climate package that was finally agreed by European leaders after months of wrangling, Europe is changing. Words like community and cooperatives, once the domain of minority groups, are rapidly emerging as sound concepts for the future energy supplies of all citizens worried by climate change and energy security. This change was highlighted at a recent conference in Brussels “Community energy across Europe – making it happen,” at which community energy cooperative members, politicians, policymakers, renewable energy trade associations and climate change campaigners took stock of successes and discussed plans for the future.

The conference showed how across Europe there are thousands of initiatives producing and supplying energy from community-owned wind turbines, sustainable biomass plants, small hydro-electric schemes and roof-top solar panels. Attendees learnt how in Germany alone 1.5 million citizens generate electricity on their roofs. And assertions by NGOs that Europe’s energy system is in a serious transition were echoed by Marie Donnelly of the European Commission’s DG Energy. “Europe’s energy has been on a path of evolution and it’s now looking like we are moving into a revolution of the system,” she said.

One example of this revolution is the Som Energia cooperative in Spain. Its goal is promoting citizen participation in transforming the current energy system to one that is 100 per cent renewable. When the cooperative started supplying electricity from renewable sources in October 2011 it had 750 members. Now, it is managing 18,000 electricity contracts, is independent of bank loans having raised finance at the grassroots level and employs 12 paid staff.

Schoenau, in Germany’s Black Forest, is another source of inspiration. Here, citizens voted by referendum in 1991 to take control of their local electricity grid. They then set up an energy cooperative, EWS, which today has 3,500 members and 150,000 customers, and which produces over half the renewable power that it sells. “Everywhere you have democratic structures, Schoenau can happen,” Tanja Gaudian of EWS, told the conference. “The citizens’ energy movement has stepped so far forward that it won’t be stoppable.”

Scotland is also leading the way, “powering” towards its community energy goal of 500MW by 2020, according to Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s minister for energy, enterprise and tourism. The target itself has played a large part in the growth of community-controlled energy in the country, helped by the creation of Local Energy Scotland, a nationwide consortium aimed at enabling community renewable energy projects. It administers a one-stop shop for advice, support and finance through its community and renewable energy scheme (CARES).

These projects show there is much room for rejoicing, but there is more work to be done to ensure that all European citizens have the chance to partake in and enjoy the benefits of community energy schemes.

The main challenge is to take the power out the hands of the big utilities and give it to the people, says Roberts. This will make it easier for community energy projects to get up and running and in tempering public opposition. The concept of Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard) will always exist, says Roberts. But he believes this can be countered with a legal framework with citizens at its centre, which is “transparent and accountable”. This means people have the right “to be involved in the planning of a project and the opportunity to participate in it,” he adds.

More joined-up thinking at an EU level is also needed, says Susann Scherbath from Friends of the Earth Europe. Currently, there is no dedicated European legal framework for community energy, but rather “piecemeal support for this burgeoning sector,” she explains. She wants community energy to be explicitly recognised as part of the EU’s 2030 energy and climate framework, and for the EU renewables directive to include the use of domestic community energy targets and other community energy considerations.

Just as important, adds Roberts, are “appropriate national support schemes” to ensure that renewables projects receive the cash they need to get up and running and to offer investors longer term certainty. Likewise, he dreams of streamlined planning and administrative burdens and simplified regulations for community energy projects, in particular to facilitate access to the grid.

“With such a framework and the right support at national level, communities’ control in, and ownership of, clean energy can increase and flourish,” says Scherbach. However, given the lower than necessary targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, renewables and energy efficiency in the 2030 package, citizens across the EU have to stand up to ensure that community energy receives the support it needs and deserves.

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