Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Opinion

Sustainable energy must be citizen owned

  • Installation of photovoltaic systems to the houses of ​low-income ​families by Greenpeace activists on Rhodes Island, Greece. (Photo: Panos Mitsios/Greenpeace)

It’s painfully obvious that Europe must radically transform its energy system to play its part in mitigating the disastrous effects of climate change. We need to use less energy, use it in smarter ways, and stop using dirty fuels that damage our environment and health. But as energy companies and governments drag their feet, individuals, co-operatives and small businesses are taking the initiative.

By producing their own renewable energy, and making homes and businesses more energy efficient, millions of "energy citizens" in Europe are showing the way forward, despite legislation and subsidies across the continent favouring polluting and industrial energy production.

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The European Commission has said it wants an Energy Union “with citizens at its core, where citizens take ownership of the energy transition” and “participate actively in the market”. This active participation by citizens mustn’t be restricted to an informed choice of supplier.

The sun, wind and other renewable energy sources are universally available and belong to us all. With a bit of help from increasingly affordable technology, everyone can harvest their own renewable power, reduce energy consumption, and use it flexibly. It is this empowerment of people and communities that the EU must support.

The benefits are manifold. Democratising the energy system leads to renewable energy projects that are closer to the needs of the local communities, not those that are imposed upon them.

This has the effect of turning nimbyism into enthusiasm, and builds wider political support for the larger energy transition. Empowering energy citizens would unlock the huge investment potential of households and co-operatives across the continent, a source of financing which is more likely to see projects through from beginning to end.

Europe would be less vulnerable

Decentralised energy production means that employment, along with the knock-on economic benefits, will go to local communities. Distributing and diversifying Europe’s energy system will also make it more resilient to shocks.

With 100 percent renewables, Europe’s energy would be far less vulnerable to spikes in fuel prices or fuel being withheld for geopolitical reasons.

So far, most legislation relating to energy citizens has been enacted by national governments, some helpful, some harmful and some downright prohibitive. Denmark led the field for energy citizens until 2002, when 40 percent of its wind energy was citizen owned.

However, following the introduction of a fixed market premium in 2003, the expansion of citizen wind energy almost came to a standstill. Not a single wind cooperative was set up between 2004 and 2008.

Nearly half of Germany’s renewable energy generation capacity is owned by energy citizens, supported by a range of policies, including a fixed feed-in tariff. But as Germany shifts towards auctions for access to feed-in tariffs, cooperative projects are starting to lose out.

The situation in Spain is worse. In 2015, the government reversed a policy of promoting the installation of photovoltaic panels by retroactively introducing a "sun tax". Not only is there now no guaranteed price for energy citizens feeding electricity back into the grid, people are being taxed for consuming and storing their own energy.

'Share the benefits'

In some cases, this has made it more expensive for people to produce their own energy than to buy from the power companies. This has, understandably, caused a dramatic slowdown in the number of renewable energy projects. Similarly, the UK government cut solar subsidies in 2015 despite its own review showing this would put 18,700 jobs at risk.

Europe cannot afford to take the wind out of its energy transition. People and communities must be guaranteed the right to take energy production and energy savings into their own hands.

There is enormous potential for growth in the number of people producing their own energy, provided the forthcoming review of the EU’s renewable energy directive and the market design initiative guarantee the right of every citizen to produce, consume and sell energy.

Europe’s energy citizens deserve standardised transparent and fair rates, and require simplified planning, authorisation and funding processes. Millions want to be part of cleaning up Europe’s energy system. Let’s let them do it. Don’t restrict access, share the benefits!

Tara Connolly is the climate and energy policy director for the Greenpeace European Unit.

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