Europe wants to provide secure, sustainable and affordable energy services for all. Industry, the government and academia get all the attention in their efforts to achieve a sustainable energy transition for the EU.
But what about ordinary citizens? Across Europe, they are joining forces through collective initiatives to play a major role in this transition.
Actively involving people in the transformation
According to an analysis published in ‘Scientific Reports’, more than 2 million citizens across Europe have been involved in thousands of projects and initiatives with investments in the billions of euros to transition to renewable energy.
In 2000 and 2021, a research team from the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences gathered data from 30 European countries. Their findings underscore the importance and contribution of collective action in the decarbonisation of Europe: initiatives (10.540), projects (22.830), people involved (2.010.600), installed renewable facilities capacity (7.2-9.9 GW) and investments made (EUR 6.2-11.3 billion).
A ‘EurekAlert!’ news release goes deeper into these numbers. With respect to participation, Germany (391.500 individuals) and Denmark (306 650 individuals) led the way. The facilities produced between 8.500 and 11.700 kW hours yearly per individual involved in the initiative. This roughly covers a typical European household’s annual electricity needs. Investment equated to about EUR 5.700 per person.
Until now, all these statistics were missing, explains the news release: “The energy system in Europe is undergoing a significant transition towards renewables and decarbonisation. However, the contribution of citizen-led efforts, such as energy cooperatives, in this sphere is largely unknown.”
What are citizen-led energy initiatives?
These initiatives are led by organisations, formal and informal groups, or projects whose operations and authority aren’t connected to for-profit private businesses or governments. They’re not out for profit, but if they are, it’s to give back to the community or society.
Citizens can participate as founders, members, educators, consultants, entrepreneurs, creators, technicians, troubleshooters and workers. Together, they produce electricity from renewable resources and heat generated from solar, wind, hydropower and biomass (dead plant or animal material that can be used to make fuel or energy).
These citizens increase awareness, consult on energy efficiency, assist in sustainability plans and organise low-carbon mobility. They boost energy self-sufficiency, cut energy costs for members and customers, support local development and increase the public’s acceptance of the energy transition. Private individuals, members, government actors and other sources raise funds.
Types of initiatives mainly include energy cooperatives, energy, renewable energy and sustainable energy communities, housing cooperatives and associations, sustainable mobility cooperatives, energy clusters, historic rural electrification cooperatives and eco-villages.
The paper gives several examples of initiatives and projects. For instance, a 1.000-member cooperative founded by 13 citizens in Heppenheim, Germany, owns and operates seven wind and 31 solar photovoltaic projects.
“Our aggregate estimates do not suggest that collective action will replace commercial enterprises and governmental action in the short or medium term without fundamental alterations to policy and market structures,” write the authors in the journal. “However, we find strong evidence for the historical, emerging, and actual importance of citizen-led collective action to the European energy transition. Collective action in the energy transition is experimenting successfully with new business models in the energy sector. Continued decentralization of energy systems and more stringent decarbonization policies will increase the importance of these actors in the future.”