Power to the people: The community-based energy transition in Europe

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

Generating all energy from renewable sources is no longer a pipe dream in Europe. From Denmark to Austria, we can see examples of a successful energy transition. Germany is clearly seen as the front-runner and an important driver – especially due to its nuclear phase-out. But the energy transition is not only “made in Germany” but also “made in Europe”, says Anna Leidreiter.

Anna Leidreiter works as a policy officer in the Climate and Energy Department of the World Future Council in Hamburg.

"In order to achieve the internationally agreed climate change targets – such as the two-degree target – one of the most pressing societal challenges is the conversion of our energy system towards a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and efficient use of energy.

Therefore, the choice and design of environmental policy instruments play a crucial role. Equally important are the stakeholders that are responsible for implementing these instruments.

Looking at those countries that successfully move towards 100% renewable energy, we see that high citizen participation and regional value creation from decentralised renewable energy production are the key success factors.

People, communities and regions are therefore the driving force of the biggest transformational process in Europe since the invention of the steam engine.

Denmark and Germany are perceived as role models in transforming the energy sector. Germany increased its total electricity share from 3% to 25% within the last decade.

The vast majority of the investments were made by co-operatives and small- and medium-sized companies. The renewable energy sector employs more than 370,000 people and brings socio-economic development to the local level.

The same phenomenon is seen in Denmark. Wind energy covered 87% of the country's electricity consumption on 7 October (Energinet Denmark).

While other countries are struggling with the integration of fluctuating energy from wind and solar, Denmark has already found an answer: By combining heat and power and implementing district heating infrastructure across the country, Denmark has set the scene for energy efficiency and decentralised storage facilities.

As electricity and heat are by law non-profitable goods, such a development enabled local community-based cooperatives to take the lead in the implementation of the energy transition.

The price per kilowatt-hour for electricity from community-owned wind parks is not only competitive with conventional power production, but is actually half the price of electricity from off-shore wind parks.

This indicates that the Scandinavian country is clearly on its way to achieve their 100% renewable energy target for the electricity, heat and transport sectors by 2050. In order to see developments elsewhere in Europe similar to those we have experienced in Germany and Denmark we need national political frameworks that enable citizens and municipalities to profit from this transition.

Austria provides another example. The country already has 83 climate and energy model regions encompassing about 873 municipalities and two million people.

With support of the national Climate and Energy Fund, which has provided €17 million since 2009, these model regions set the course for energy self-sufficiency. A recent study by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research shows that this investment and instruments for energy efficiency have a positive long-term effect on the local economy.

Powering a region with 100% renewable energy has been technically and economically feasible for a long time and is becoming reality all across Europe today. Feed-in tariffs brought us on this track.

Our task now is to adapt policy frameworks on all governance levels to this reality and to further develop best policies like the feed-in tariff. We urgently need enabling political frameworks that allow citizen participation and the combination of the electricity and heat sector.

To that end, knowledge transfer and exchange between policymakers are vital. Networks between trailblazing countries must be established all over Europe to realise the implementation of a European energy transition with 100% renewable energies.

Despite numerous good examples and successful policy instruments, this message does not always get through to policy makers in governments. We need to facilitate dialogue so that countries can learn from the invaluable experiences of other countries in order to avoid wasting scarce resources."

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