Citizen-powered cities: coping with conflicts

By Miriam Eisermann on 3 mai 2016

A revolution is on its way : all over Europe, the energy market is being shaken up by individual citizens, associations and entrepreneurs who wish to have be more than simple consumer. This emerging ‘community energy’ asking for more power is making the few big energy companies nervous : their once monopolistic status is in danger.

Identifying the conflicts of interest coming with the new energy governance at all levels and describing how to deal with them constructively was the purpose of a breakout session organised by Energy Cities and ICLEI Europe during the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns last week in Bilbao, Spain.

Take-aways from the debate in Bilbao

Community power is an essential element in Europe’s energy transition. It also brings numerous benefits to the local level, creating regional value, distributing wealth, strengthening social ties and increasing resilience. Four key messages from this panel were send out from Bilbao to local, national and European decision-makers :

  • There is a pressing need for EU and national frameworks enabling community energy (grid access, tax-reliefs, cost-free autoconsumption, etc.).
  • National targets for renewable and locally-produced energy can move the lever to increase the number of prosumers
  • Sincere participation processes and cross-mandate dialogues between local authority and local stakeholders are key to successful energy transformations
  • Private-public partnerships have a great potential to facilitate community energy

Who actually is the community ?

The session on April 27th, moderated by Peter Ulrich from ICLEI Europe, was opened by Timothy Moss from the Humboldt University in Berlin. The British expert from the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems - IRI THESys gave an insight on latest research. He reminded that the definitions of ‚community‘ and ‚community energy‘ are broad (there actually still exists no official definition at EU level) and can be categorised on sliding scales, depending on the specific context.

Reinventing local governance

As the panellist with a truly European view on the energy transition, our colleague Miriam Eisermann stressed the necessary active role of local authorities in community energy. With examples from our network and based on our recent research in the field, Miriam illustrated the different degrees of involvement a city can have, from being a facilitator or a partner to stronlgy driving the community process (e.g. Plymouth Community Energy). City councils should see the active citizens as new partners for achieving energy and climate objectives, instead of taking thel for competitors threatening the status quo. Conflicts can be minimised through sincere (and ideally cross-mandate) participation dialogues that involve local stakeholders in the earliest phase of energy planning. In that sense, Utrecht’s deliberative energy planning process carried out in 2015 should be a model for other city councils.

Hands-on experiences from the local implementation of renewable and community energy at the local level were provided by Jaroslav Klusak from Litomerice (Czech Republic), member of Energy Cities since 2014 and Albert Vendrell from the Diputacio de Barcelona. With citizens demand for energy co still being weak, Litomerice launched a subsidy program for solar thermal collectors to prevent citizens from using coal heating. The expert from the Barcelona Provincial Council described the citizen investment scheme in place for photovoltaic energy. His region having been confronted to sudden and unexpected changes in national law (a complete removal of the feed-in tariff scheme), he stressed the importance of stable national regulation for long-term planning and investment.

The grassroots level was represented by Anne Schiffer from Friends of the Earth Scotland. The German campaigner witnessed of the inspiring approaches from community groups, encouraged by a favorable national framework. With its nationally defined objective for community and locally-owned energy of 500MWh by 2020 (already reached in 2015), the country certainly is a remarkable forerunner.

As part of its “3D” political agenda, Energy Cities will partner up with NGOS and advocate at European and national levels for strengthening energy democracy : if the current energy landscape is changing, it is not simply for greening energy sources. Our network wants to make sure that the energy transition brings about new democratic processes and a renewed lust of citizens for society and politics.

The next opportunity will be our presence in a panel organised by the European Economic and Social Committee on May 17th in Brussels. You are welcome to share your ideas with us ahead of the event ! Contact Miriam for that.

Photo credits : shutterstock.com | italianestro

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