During two days at the beginning of September, the commons collided with renewable energy. Lots of very interesting exchanges and new ideas on energy cooperatives, barriers and enabling environments, storage and infrastructure.

How to scale-up community energy?

This was the leading question of our session on community energy. We had first a plenary session, with David Bollier, Pat Conaty (research associate at Co-operatives UK) and led by David Hammerstein. I first presented the legal and political settings in Germany since the beginning of the Energiewende. This is a very illustrative example on how public policies can enable or disable community energy. Here are my slides.

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We then discussed the political and industrial changes in Germany since the beginning of the Energiewende: the initial resistance of the “big four” (the large energy utilities, which ran the conventional power plants) to the installation of renewables and then their larger participation since 2012. This is especially visible in the development of offshore wind farms. There’s a interplay of ideology (market & competition are best) and lobbying involved in the revisions of the law, that enabled the penetration of big actors on the market. Another question was: why do people don’t react? I guess that citizen involvement is not really an issue in Germany, the debate is focused on the share of renewables in the energy mix and the price of the RE surcharge (the “cost” of the Energiewende). I mentioned the example of the tidal lagoon project in Whales to show that citizen’s involvement is possible also in large-scale projects.
There was also a discussion on the fact that feed-in-tariffs, which have proven to be an enabling instrument for energy co-ops, might also have some counter-effects on inclusiveness and efficiency. This is a general topic in co-operatives that membership is bound to the possibility of financial participation, leaving low-income families behind (and therefore might enhance inequality). One participant mentioned that there’s a danger when the number of members is decreasing in co-ops. Concerning feed-in-tariffs, this is an instrument that enable a return on investment, which presupposes an investment capacity. Furthermore, they contain an internal incentive to produce more to earn more, which is counteracting the needs for energy conservation (as explored in a previous post).
I finally mentioned the sustainable energy utility as a model to integrate efficiency & production in a local energy scheme, under commons governance.

What can we do to scale-up? What technical solutions?

After the plenary session, we had a small and very cosy workshop. We discussed the potential actions to scale-up community energy. Then we reviewed the technical solutions: the role of the grid, smart metering and storage solutions.

Concerning scaling-up, I proposed to use the universal entry point that energy cooperatives proposes as a motor to extend the commons. Energy is a universal need and has therefore the power to involve people that have very different political and cultural backgrounds (“commoning without knowing it”). It might actually become infectious. In case of political systems that are not very supportive of community energy, this ideologically-neutral approach might provide best results. However, as pointed out by D. Hammerstein, the example of Barcelona, where the local government is clearly positioned in favor of citizen energy, shows that things are moving a lot faster  when there’s political commitment (local authorities are presently designing an energy scheme involving inhabitants and with strong inclusiveness measures). So we should not underestimate the need to work at a political level.
We also discussed the various storage solutions (pumping in reservoirs, power-to-gas & catalysis, batteries, EV…) and the effect of storage on the design of the grid. I argued against too much isolation of communities (when they have their own grid and storage system and become totally self-sutainable, I see the risk of having a bunch of isolated, quasi-feudal, communities), but others pointed out that centralized systems are highly vulnerable. We finally agreed on the need to rethink the architecture of the grid to make sure they effectively connect the communities, and are not a mere red line passing between them. We also discussed shortly about the pros and cons of smart grids and smart metering (privacy issues vs. efficiency & decentralization) and the potential solutions (locally-owned smart metering, e.g., at municipal/regional/city levels).