The current energy crisis

If the hostilities that have erupted up on Europe’s borders have taught us anything, it is that all of us - citizens, public authorities, NGOs and businesses - are addicts to imported fossil fuels.

This latest energy crisis did not start with Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. It was already driven largely by a supply crisis – likely driven by oil and gas majors trying to make up for lost profits after COVID-19.

The effects of the crisis have hit the cooperative energy sector, just as any other. Yet, it is those that drive energy cooperativism – the citizens – that are feeling the most pressure. Volatile energy markets have confronted EU’s citizens with soaring gas and oil prices for transport, heating their homes, and for electricity. For many households, their energy bill has doubled or tripled, creating a financial strain. Before this crisis, many citizens were already confronted with energy poverty. Now, this number is bound to rise even further.

History shows what Europe’s energy citizens do in times of crises

This is not the first time Europe has been confronted with an energy crisis. In times of crisis, institutional authorities are needed to react. However, in times of crisis the DNA of cooperativism also comes alive and citizens can work together to tackle problems in solidarity.

We only need to look back to the 1970s when, in response to the oil supply shocks, Danish citizens resoundingly rejected their government's plan to invest in nuclear. Instead, they started investing in solar and wind technologies, as well as district heating as a way to move away from oil.

The 1970’s oil crisis also spawned initiatives such as car-free Sundays across Europe. In cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, because of these policies, cycling is now part of the inescapable fabric of these cities’ personalities. One thing about crises is clear: in order to carry out monumental shifts in society, we need to include citizens as part of the solution.

Manifesto web copy

Local community ownership of renewables: a way forward

Today, citizens are still capable of leading by example. Take local renewable electricity production in the Flemish region of Belgium. In 1991, Ecopower was founded, starting with a micro-hydropower plant in a medieval watermill. Now it is a large cooperative with 65,000 members, and produces around 90 GWh/y of green electricity. Ecopower supplies green electricity to about 2% of the Flemish households and assists its members to consume less and to produce energy themselves by installing PV panels.

Many citizens and local communities are eager to repeat Ecopower’s success, and the potential is there. By 2050, around 45% of renewable energy production could be in the hands of citizens, about a quarter of which could come through participation in a cooperative. There is also an estimation that citizens have the capacity to invest up to 240 billion euros toward the energy transition by 2030.

If we want to meet this potential, and if we want more initiatives like Ecopower across Europe, a priority must be placed on allowing local communities to build up enough self-owned (e.g. by citizens, cooperatives, local authorities, SMEs, etc) renewable energy production – in particular through renewable energy communities (RECs) and citizen energy communities (CECs).

The European Commission’s REPower EU Plan

With its ‘REPowerEU Communication, the European Commission has laid out a plan to diversify away from Russian gas, which currently makes up more than 40% of Europe’s entire gas consumption. However, we need to make sure Russian fossil energy doesn’t simply get replaced with someone else’s fossil energy. Much more ambition and political vision for rolling out renewables and energy savings is needed. That is where citizens come in.

Our REPowerEU for Energy Citizens Manifesto

We would like to propose a REPowerEU for Energy Citizens Manifesto. This manifesto calls for an inclusive and local community-centred approach to the EU’s REPowerEU plan. Our manifesto consists of a number of actions the EU and Member States should take to empower local public authorities, citizens and community initiatives to take ownership and responsibility for replacing imported fossil gas with renewable energy.

At the centre of this plan, the EU should frame local ownership of renewable energy production as a matter of security of energy supply.

1- Acknowledge and support local ownership of renewable energy production as a matter of securing energy supply

Local communities that can secure renewable energy production are able to shield themselves from the impacts of high wholesale electricity and gas prices and volatility. To ensure consumer-owned suppliers can set up a sustainable business model, building up ownership of local renewable energy production is a precondition. We call on the European Commission to recognize local ownership of renewable energy production as an urgent matter of securing energy supply. This should be supported through the elaboration of concrete measures, including:

  1. Establishment of national and sub-national objectives for citizen and local community ownership and production of renewables;
  2. Robust urban, spatial and energy planning for local renewables production and storage, as well as grid infrastructure;
  3. Clearer rules and provision of support to local authorities so they can use public procurement to collaborate with local citizen-led initiatives; and
  4. Development of local markets for renewable energy and flexibility

2- Support energy sobriety and lasting behavioural change to save energy

Until Europe installs enough renewable energy production, the best short term option for consumers is to reduce consumption of energy. This will require large scale campaigns and programmes on energy sobriety. In the immediate-term, households need strong support from municipalities and citizen-led initiatives to undertake energy savings measures so they can cope with next winter. In the medium-term, these behaviour changes need to be supported by carving out structured resources to fund training programmes for energy coaches, so that energy communities can more easily engage with households.

3- Access to renewable energy for energy poor, vulnerable and lower-income households should be a priority – not just a side measure

It is clear that the poorest will be disproportionately impacted by higher energy prices. As a matter of equity, it is not enough to ensure these people are not left behind. Rather, this should be reframed as a need to prioritize access to renewable energy for vulnerable, energy poor, and lower-income households. The European Commission should work with Member States to identify how they can develop policies and measures to ensure vulnerable, energy poor and lower-income households can participate in RECs. On the other hand, incentives are needed to encourage RECs to focus on adopting energy poverty and solidarity initiatives.

4- Ensure full implementation of EU rules for renewable energy communities

Full implementation of existing EU legislation on renewable energy communities will be a precondition for empowering citizens to achieve their full potential in contributing to Europe’s move away from fossil gas. Until enabling frameworks are in place, local communities will be unable to start developing local renewable energy production. Energy communities, which are inherently a social and organizational concept, need to be clearly distinguished from technical concepts like renewables collective self-consumption and energy sharing. Furthermore, national enabling frameworks need to be put in place as soon as possible so that communities are able to grow at the scale needed to reach more ambitious national and local renewable energy production targets.

5- Putting gas – even renewable gas – in its place

Renewable gases, such as biomethane, can help to decarbonize existing gas supply but such resources need to be exploited carefully. The EU and Member States should not support unsustainably produced biomethane, which would sacrifice environmental and climate objectives simply for the sake of replacing fossil gas. Member States should prioritise getting households off gas, and integration of biogas into the energy system should respect the efficiency first principle. Furthermore, citizen energy communities should not be the vehicle for promoting market integration of biomethane, as it creates more risks than benefits.