Saturday, June 22, 2024

Energy communities are the drivers of the EU’s re-industrialisation

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By Chris Vrettos, REScoop.eu, Philippe Awouters, SeaCoop, Stephan C Krabsen, Energy Communities Denmark, Luca Varotto, Enostra

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Green and inclusive competition will be the make-or-break element for the future of EU cohesion. Energy communities should be acknowledged for the multiple co-benefits they bring, Chris Vrettos, Philippe Awouters, Stephan C Krabsen and Luca Varotto write.

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A Spanish cooperative supplier with tens of thousands of members, an Irish cooperative helping citizens renovate their households, a Portuguese cooperative e-car sharing scheme: a tidal wave of citizen-led renewable energy projects is sweeping across Europe.

This silent revolution is partly spurred by the recent energy crisis, which pushed millions of households to look for energy independence solutions.

This tapestry of inspiring solutions constitutes the lived manifestation of a staggering statistic: by 2050, one in two EU citizens could be producing their own electricity, covering 45% of the EU’s demand. 

Increasing concerns about runaway climate change, strong economic returns, and direct democratic participation are just some of the many reasons why EU citizens are turning to energy communities as a solution.

Today, REScoop.eu, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives, has over 2250 members, in turn representing over 2 million EU citizens. However, energy communities are misconstrued as only “small” and “local” with no room in the new economic competitiveness narratives. 

A citizen-led re-industrialisation

We’re living through consequential times. 2024 is already predicted to be another record-breaking year for global temperatures.

Democracy is backsliding across the world, partly due to a newfound wave of economic instability and de-industrialisation, leading to an increasing encroachment of the far right into the political mainstream.

Policymakers across major economies (US, China, UK) are planning and implementing major publicly-funded renewable re-industrialisation agendas.

A new world economy is forming: batteries, electric vehicles, and renewables manufacturing are spurring a wave of unprecedented growth even in hitherto sluggish economies.

Albeit with a slow start, the EU is picking up steam with repeated signals that the next European Commission will focus on industrial competitiveness. 

We must reject the false dichotomy that pits economic revitalisation against social and environmental sustainability in this transition.

For example, Europe’s industrial push foresees plans such as renewables acceleration areas and net-zero acceleration valleys, which will be used to demarcate the areas where renewable energy projects and industrial clusters can be developed faster.

A multi-billion funding gap and how to bridge it

The inclusion of local communities in the planning process and ensuring co-ownership and distribution of benefits could significantly accelerate and simplify the rolling out of renewables, as local opposition would diminish. In its EU Election Manifesto, REScoop.eu calls on policymakers to guarantee meaningful participation and benefits for citizens and local communities in large-scale renewable projects. 

With a multi-billion funding gap threatening the EU’s climate goals, a key consideration in the ongoing competitiveness debate is how to scale up funding while ensuring territorial cohesion across the EU.

On the one hand, The Net Zero Industry Act has not provided for fresh public funding. Moreover, The European Commission’s high-level report on the future of cohesion policy emphasises that public EU funding programs will be more effective if they target place-based, people-centred projects that are co-created with local communities.

Energy communities can leverage public funds to boost the local economy, providing two to eight times more benefits than private renewable projects.

At the same time, EU citizens and energy communities can mobilise more than €240 billion towards the energy transition by 2030. The much-anticipated Letta report on competitiveness emphasizes that cooperatives must be supported, including through dedicated financing and public procurement, as they play a vital role in the social economy. 

Walking the walk: examples from the ground

All across the EU, communities are promoting large-scale renewables and re-industrialisation projects:

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In Denmark, local citizens are financing nine 11 MW windmills that will produce 450.000 kWh a year — enough to make the island where they live self-sufficient with power both now and in the future.

Another example is the Energy Community Avedøre, which supplies a data centre with locally produced power at a stable and low price. The waste-heat from cooling the servers is fed into the local heat grid via a heat pump, which saves 10% of the heat bill of the local consumers and members of the local district heating cooperative.

The local grid is balanced via a large battery that also helps balance production and consumption in the local grid. 

In Belgium, energy cooperatives lobbied the Government to enshrine citizen participation in the first offshore wind tenders. Following this successful campaign, 34 citizen energy cooperatives joined forces in “SeaCoop”, which adopts a visionary “20-20 approach”: acquiring a 20% stake in new offshore wind farms in Belgium and supplying 20% of the generated electricity to Belgian households and SMEs through cooperative suppliers.

Seacoop is planning to use earnings from its offshore wind parks for energy poverty initiatives, such as helping households shift faster to heat pumps and electric vehicles. 

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In recent years, Italy has experienced a notable upsurge in worker buyouts, a trend capable of countering the adverse effects of delocalisation while bolstering competitiveness.

A striking example is the re-industrialisation initiative led by former employees of EX-GKN in Florence. Following a mass layoff in 2021, workers joined forces with local and national stakeholders, including climate activists from FFF Italia, to mobilise support.

This collective endeavour gave rise to an ambitious vision for cooperative reindustrialisation, designed to attract both private and public investment for advancing production innovation. The comprehensive plan includes activities such as PV module manufacturing and cargo e-bike assembly. 

Green and inclusive competition will be the make-or-break element for the future of EU cohesion. Energy communities should be acknowledged for the multiple co-benefits they bring to local economies and given an equal footing in this new green industrial boom. 

Chris Vrettos is Financing Project Manager at REScoop.eu, Philippe Awouters is Managing Director at SeaCoop, Stephan C Krabsen is Vice President of Energy Communities Denmark, and Luca Varotto is Junior Consultant at Enostra.

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