Europe’s cities are key to empowering ‘energy citizens’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Cities have to be at the centre Europe's energy policies, writes Anna Lisa Boni. [Arlington County/Flickr]

This article is part of the policy topic coverage on Think Digital – smart cities

Cities need to be at the centre of Europe’s energy policies because they create sustainable supplies and boost job growth, writes Anna Lisa Boni.

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES

If the EU is serious about delivering clean and reliable energy for all citizens, it must work with its cities. European cities are already leaders in the field of climate and energy policy, with many setting themselves targets that stretch beyond those at EU or national level. Major initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors demonstrate how cities are committed to driving efficiency, reducing emissions and boosting resilience.

Creating a more resilient, secure and sustainable energy system is at the heart of the Energy Union strategy. The Commission’s clean energy package puts the focus on consumers, aiming to boost local energy generation and empower Europe’s “energy citizens”. Cities can help achieve this.

The majority of EU climate and energy policies come together in cities, and it is here where we can best understand the impact of the energy transition. It is also in cities where we have the critical mass to drive change and secure results faster, the innovation capacity to design solutions and the opportunities to secure investment through public-private partnership.

The most cost-effective, secure and sustainable energy is energy that isn’t used at all in the first place. The Swedish city of Umea recently finalised a large-scale retrofit of 130 municipal buildings, securing a 20% drop in energy consumption. The project, carried out between 2008 and 2016, was financed through a creative mechanism, Energy Performance Contracting, where improvements are funded by expected cost savings, which in Umea worked out to be higher than the initial forecast.

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The European Commission will announce increased EU energy efficiency targets on Wednesday (30 November). But it will face resistance from member states opposed to binding, more ambitious rules, and from the European Parliament, which has demanded much higher goals.

The Energy Union needs to support projects such as this, which make a vital contribution to Europe’s overall sustainability. Smaller-scale initiatives are just as important.

Many cities implement schemes that target household energy efficiency, such as Ghent’s “Check Your House” app. The Belgian city has developed a digital tool enabling households to assess their energy efficiency, get tips on how to improve it and calculate potential savings.

Cities take an integrated approach to energy challenges that enables them to address other issues at the same time, such as job creation and economic growth. Tackling fuel poverty is a priority for many cities, such as Newcastle in the UK, which funds measures through its “Warm Up North” programme to improve efficiency in low-income households.

Amsterdam takes a pioneering approach to public procurement, which enables it to create jobs for young unemployed people in the sustainability field. By using a “social return” clause, young people can learn sustainable and environmentally friendly business practices within, for example, a road construction company.

It is important that the Energy Union follows cities’ lead by taking a similarly integrated approach, going beyond ICT, energy and mobility, to address areas such as the circular economy, fuel poverty, air quality and health issues.

The decentralisation of energy supplies is key to boosting Europe’s energy security. By generating as much energy as possible locally, we can take pressure off long-distance grids and alleviate dependence on volatile global markets and unstable supply countries. The new proposals emphasise the role of “energy citizens” in taking ownership for energy production and consumption.

Cities can make that essential link with citizens, with many already providing supporting frameworks to enable citizens to generate, store and distribute their own energy.

The “Sola” scheme in Bristol, UK allows residents to store energy generated in their rooftop photovoltaic panels in batteries, enabling them to use it as and when it’s needed. They can also earn money by exporting energy into the grid at peak times.

Cities play an important role in influencing behavioural change among citizens, be it by guiding them towards more sustainable transport choices or advising on household efficiency measures. Making these changes at local level in cities across Europe can make a vast contribution to energy and climate goals at EU level.

It is in cities where we can make the biggest impact on Europe’s climate and energy performance. The success of the Energy Union depends on strong cooperation between the Commission, member states and cities. The Urban Agenda for the EU, launched in May last year, provides an important framework for cities to help shape policies and programmes in fields including energy transition and climate adaptation. Working in partnership is the best way for cities, member states and the EU institutions to address our energy and climate challenges together.

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