While there’s a lot of news these days about renewable energy getting a boost thanks to the US deflationary bill and the need to find alternatives to cheap natural gas from Russia, there’s a quiet revolution underway that could significantly disrupt the utility industry. Communities in Europe are preparing plans to generate their own electricity from renewable sources.
Some call it “energy citizenship” because it involves people managing their own electricity supply rather than relying on a utility to do it all. As you can imagine, not all energy companies are happy about the prospect of communities generating their own electricity. This contrasts with the traditional model, which involves distributing electricity from several large power plants – whether thermal, solar or wind – and sending it to individuals through a network of substations, poles and wires.
In the US model, energy companies generate much of their revenue from investing in new power plants. By law, they receive a guaranteed rate of return on these investments. This model is one of the reasons why larger companies invest in boondoggles like new nuclear plants. To make more money, they have to invest more. Even if these investments are unwise, the companies make money because their customers are legally required to pay their utility bills or go without electricity. Communities have little power over the decisions of companies. “Energy citizenship” disrupts this model.
Guardian reports that from solar panels in the Netherlands to biomass burners in Spain, communities across Europe are increasingly producing, consuming and selling their own energy. According to the latest figures, 2 million Europeans are now involved in 7,000 local energy communities across the continent, with more happening every day.
They will be key to Europe’s green transition, because as heat pumps replace gas boilers and electric vehicles replace internal combustion engines, the highly centralized electricity production and distribution systems – power plants and grids – simply will not be able to adequately handle the increase in electricity demand.
GRETA & CleanWatts lead the way
“At least not by themselves,” said Gonçalo Mendes, a senior researcher and energy systems modeler at LUT University in Finland and a member of GRETA – the Green Energy Transitions Action program – created and funded by the European Commission to promote “energy”. citizenship’, defined as educating all citizens on how to use energy sustainably and participate in the energy transition.
The only way forward, Mendes said, is to “decentralize more and more, produce and consume more energy locally from sources like solar and wind, and promote storage and smart solutions for efficient energy management.” He says Europe will “never come close” to meeting its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% over the next eight years unless “we work urgently on the role that everyday citizens will have to play. And to get there, we must explicitly acknowledge the social side of the energy transition.”
Lurian Klein is an expert on energy communities Pure watts, which created a modular, interoperable and localized cloud operating system designed to meet the needs of renewable energy communities. “Our platform seamlessly connects the dots between post-meter optimization for community members and pre-meter network resilience and transaction management for local energy markets. It is time to rethink our relationship with energy and for each of us to become an active contributor to the global energy transformation,” it reads.
Klein says that these democratized energy communities “benefit from social connectedness between end users rather than being based on competing economic self-interests. They reinforce positive social values, they really enhance empowerment and social engagement.”
Michael Pinto of Pure watts he says: “You have electricity needs that double and grids that can’t handle it. But you also have [renewables] which are now competitive and intelligent technologies for efficient measurement, control and balancing of production, storage and consumption.” According to him, Europe has two options – “outages and massive volatility and a complete rebuilding of national networks or a change in the way electricity is produced, supplied and consumed. More agile, more inventive. These are local energy communities.”
“There are tens of thousands of municipalities in the EU,” said Pinto. “There are 8,000 in Italy alone – about 5,000 of them with less than 5,000 inhabitants. The potential here is simply huge. But the challenge is also huge.”
Renewable Energy Community in Europe
Grunneger Power in the Netherlands has 2,500 members. It was created ten years ago by local people frustrated by the slow pace of transition to renewable energy sources. The cooperative owns two solar parks with a total of 10,000 solar panels, as well as smaller sites in houses and buildings throughout the city. The electricity produced is provided to members of the cooperative with any surplus sold to sustainable energy providers. Any profits are invested back into the cooperative.
Bologna, Italy has a community green energy project consisting of the University of Bologna, the city, several residents’ associations, the regional energy agency and other stakeholders. Part of the village is residential and part industrial.
Carlo Alberto Nucci, professor of electrical energy systems at the University of Bologna and the project’s technical lead, said it was a pilot project – “like a living laboratory” – and that recent government incentives for local energy communities in Italy would make a significant difference. “The bottom line is that we start generating energy where it is consumed, and we can do that now with renewables.” He said about 20% of the energy produced in cities should come from energy communities.
Smart meters, connected devices and end-user applications will be critical to the system’s success, Nucci said. “A smart app can automatically turn on your home appliances and choose the best moment for you – and for the efficiency of the whole community – to use your washing machine, for example. A lot of it is really about the concept that energy has value, that information about it is really important, and that virtuous energy behavior can make an absolute difference – both for individuals and for communities. This is all pretty new.”
Renewable Energy Agency
Until now, the people who use electricity have had very little say in how that electricity is produced or distributed. The utilities made all the decisions and consumers either quietly and obediently paid their utility bills or were shut out. In a strange way, people were powerless to control their access to electricity.
The very idea that they should be able to make decisions for themselves is a byproduct of the fact that solar panels have increased tenfold in efficiency and come down in price over the last 20 years. Before that, the idea of people generating their own electricity was unthinkable.
Finally says Gonçalo Mendes Guardian that more than 80% of households in the EU could actively participate in the energy transition. “We call it energy citizenship. Obviously, the level of awareness and engagement will vary. But it’s all about agency.” Agency is another way of saying self-empowerment, and it could be an earthquake for the utility industry. Many people think that would be good.
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