Europeans test energy cooperatives to boost independence

Wind turbine. Marienkoog, 2008. [Danish Wind Industry / Flickr]

EU officials look at Belgium as an example for cooperative energy projects, as the 28-country bloc looks to de-carbonise and gain more energy independence.

European Commission and energy experts met in Brussels last week for EU Sustainable Energy Week, as the EU’s relationship with Russia continued to look strained over Ukraine.

The EU’s conflict with its largest supplier of natural gas has brought energy dependence to the top of the bloc’s agenda. Even under normal conditions, importing fuel comes at a cost. The European Commission estimates that the EU spent €1 billion per day last year on energy imports.

However, in Belgium, and many towns and villages, particularly in northern Europe, residents are taking energy production into their own hands, setting up investment projects in which anyone can become a shareholder.

“This is an opportunity for citizens. Production [of energy] comes to close to them,” said Dirk Vansintjan at a conference on decentralised energy systems. Vansintjan coordinates Ecopower, a Belgian renewable energy cooperative.

The cooperative, which is partially funded by the European Union, attempts to stimulate citizen investment in renewable energy, allowing anyone to buy shares and therefore become a member of a project.

At last count the cooperative had almost 37,000 members, owned 11 wind turbines, three hydropower installations, one biomass installation and 270 solar panel installations.

It is one of more than 2400 renewable energy cooperatives, REScoops, dotted around Europe.

“We see great potential in this kind of model. It fosters acceptability,” said Adrien Bullier, who works in the European Commission’s Executive Agency for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (EASME).

COP21 in Paris

The citizens engaging in REScoops are, at least in part, motivated by a desire to mitigate climate change, attempting to be “ethical citizens”, as Vansintjan puts it, producing their own low-carbon energy.

The European Commission has recently proposed a series of climate and energy goals for the year 2030, which include a 40% cut in carbon emissions, compared to 1990s levels and a 27% target for renewables.

Brussels has also set out a roadmap to curb EU emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050.

“The European Commission is indeed positive towards community energy, in particular as such initiatives usually rely on renewable energy and therefore help to achieve our RES (renewable energy sources) and GHG (greenhouse gas) targets”, said Sabine Berger, spokesperson for the EU energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger.

Next year, the world’s governments meet in Paris for the UN COP21 conference, with the aim of achieving a legally binding agreement on climate. The goal of the conference is to reach an agreement to curb carbon emission levels so as to avoid a global temperature rise of two degrees celsius.

“Community power needs to be recognised as a key strategy for climate change, as well as economic, social and local development,” said Josh Roberts, an environmental lawyer at ClientEarth.

However, citizens can face regulatory or financial hurdles when launching cooperative projects, with rules differing across EU countries. The energy markets also tend to be dominated by a few large and established players.

“Renewable energy projects can be financed, but in certain countries it’s easier than others,” Vansintjan said.

“There are opportunities for this [cooperative renewable energy]. Europe is spending about 1 billion per day on energy imports. The 2050 goals … mean almost complete decarbonisation of the energy sector,” said an official from the EU’s climate action directorate.

“The energy markets are not good, though they’re not as bad as the financial markets. We need a new paradigm of citizen engagement in the markets,” said an official from the European Commission’s health and consumer’s directorate.

“We’re looking for a sea-change in the energy sector,” said Thomas Pensel, an official for the city of Mainz, Germany. “We’re aiming for a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030.”

A European Commission consultation document (or 'Green Paper') for the EU's 2030 climate and energy policy mentions a potential greenhouse gas emission-reduction target of 40%, and does not close the door on a 30% target for the proportion of energy that renewables should make up by 2030.

But the consultation document suggests that any new energy savings goal be delayed until after a review of progress towards reaching the bloc’s 2020 target in June 2014, despite recognising that this goal was non- binding, and unlikely to be met. 

The EU currently has three 2020 climate plans – for 20% improvements on the continent’s CO2 emissions, renewables and energy consumption performances. This latter is to be met by a variety of means.

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