If the need for more renewable energy* or more democracy seems pretty obvious to most of us, the need for more (citizen) ownership is generally less clear. And even less the combination of the three: community energy. Insights into the multiple benefits of community energy as a transformative process.
Also published on the website of the Commons Network.
Community energy refers to any kind of power plant using a renewable source of energy, that has been planned, financed and which is owned by a community of people (from the village to the house). And why would these energy communities matter? It is nice enough but sounds pretty irrelevant when we think about fighting climate change or fostering democracy… However, several recent studies highlight the crucial role of energy democracy in meeting these societal challenges.
Hereafter, I will distinguish energy communities (as defined earlier) from external projects, which involve private or institutional investors and a project developer who do not belong to the community where the power-plant is installed. If informed and sometimes a minor share-holder, the community generally does not take part in the design and the decision-making.
Some benefits of community energy can (and sometimes have been) quantified:
- Reinvestment in local economy. A much larger part of the initial investment and profits derived from energy communities flows back to the local economy as compared to external projects (up to eight times larger, see article & original study -in German).
- Lower electricity prices are to be expected as energy communities expect lower return-rates than external projects. This is crucial to help fighting energy poverty.
Out of a visit I made in the energy self-sufficient village Feldheim (I’ll relate that in a future episode!), I also got these two indications (which to my knowledge have not been quantified yet):
- Stable real-estate value. Due to the positive image of energy communities compared to villages where a renewable power-plant was installed by external actors, the value of the real-estate is largely sustained or improved.
- There is creation of local and resilient jobs and reinvigoration of rural regions. Feldheim is a typical example of how such a project helps to fight structural unemployment and to attract new inhabitants (e.g., the school has reopen its doors after being closed for decades).
Other benefits are more difficult to quantify but are nonetheless tangible. A series of interviews from local stake-holders involved in community energy projects reported the following (see article & study -in German):
- It increases the connectivity between the community members (“making friends”, “doing together”).
- Involvement. The possibility to participate in the decision-making at all levels provides a strong incentive to be involved in the community and thereby fosters democracy.
- Interestingly, it raises the level of self-worth for local actors, who are able to acquire new skills, and/or achieve challenges (for instance get involved and better understand local politics).
Finally, there is a range of strategical benefits:
- Power generation in public hands. Power plants being by nature highly strategic infrastructure, it seems rather reassuring that they remain in the public hands rather than under private control.
- Stabilize grid and fight black-outs. It might seem counter-intuitive, but a research project from the German Fraunhofer Institute shows that the decentralized production of energy might help to stabilize the grid. As shown by this video (in German), small decentralized production units are actually a better solution against black-outs than big centralised power-plants.
- Favouring the installation of the “appropriate technology*” coupled to the implementation of energy-saving or energy-efficient measures. The interest of an energy community lies more into finding an adequate, robust and resilient solution to produce clean energy rather than maximising profits.
- Fuel the energy transition. Community energy projects raise the awareness and acceptance towards the energy transition, and therefore help to fight climate change and environmental damages.
*Renewable energy: energy produced from sources that will be renewed/replenished in a short amount of time. Typically, even if you use the wind, the sun-rays, the tides, the waves, the flow of a river, and in some cases biomass to make energy (warmth or electricity) today, that has no impact on their amount tomorrow. That does not mean that they are infinite (there is a finite amount of wind), but it means that their quantity won’t be depleted permanently if you use them. It is therefore clear that oil, coal and uranium (to make nuclear power) are finite and not renewable (or at least not on short time-scales): if you use them today, there will be less tomorrow.
*Appropriate technology: it describes the technology best adapted to the local conditions and needs of the community members. It is used in opposition to the race for “high technology” (or high-tech), which, although being technologically sound, is not always the best suited solution. High-tech also does not necessarily feeds the interests of the community, of the “common good” but rather that of external investors.