VIEW: Renewable energy co-operatives: Europe can literally be powered by...

By Dirk Vansintjan, President, REScoop

In its recently released Clean Energy Package, the European Commission finally acknowledged that energy communities – such as cooperatives – have a major role to play in the Europe’s energy transition. This could be a potential game changer for people and communities across the EU.

On 30 November, 2016, the Commission published a series of proposals to reform the energy market. Referred to as EU’s “winter package” the new rules outline plans to put efficiency first and maintain the EU as a global leader in renewables. Significantly, this includes placing consumers at the centre of Europe’s energy market.

We can question whether, as a whole, the package is capable of achieving all of these goals. In fact, it is far from perfect. But one thing is undeniable: it establishes building blocks for a dedicated legal framework so that communities can participate in the energy system without being encumbered by rules that were made for old, centralised and dirty fossil fuels.

This could be the potential start of a game changer for communities across the EU that want to cooperate with each other to change the energy system.

And it could not come fast enough. Communities have been pioneering the clean energy transition since the 1970s in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Over the past decade or so, more and more citizens have been coming together to produce and supply themselves with clean renewable energy, and the trend is likely to continue. According to a study by CE Delft, by 2050 around 83% – or about 187 million – of EU households could contribute to renewable energy production, demand response and/or energy storage. People join up, not just because of competitive energy prices and investment returns, but also their desire to fight climate change, develop cooperation with their neighbours, and support the added value of community projects towards the local economy.

There’s also a clear correlation to participating in a renewable energy cooperative (REScoop) and self-empowerment: over 40% of the members of the Belgian renewable energy supplier , Ecopower, also have installed solar panels on their roofs.

It’s not just about renewables. Some REScoops own and operate their own local grids and they provide services to their members to help them use less energy. And it’s not stopping there either – the movement has its sights set on providing storage and demand response, and in setting up micro-grids. It is through these activities that REScoops will lead the transition towards a clean decarbonised and decentralised energy system.

At the moment, however, European energy legislation does not even mention community participation in energy production. This means REScoops must play by the same rules as large, centralized players, essentially placing REScoops at a competitive disadvantage.

With the Commission’s proposed Package, that would change. This is encouraging news, because the old energy system can no longer support the growth of community energy. In many ways it is even attacking community participation, as if it were a virus.

Faced with unwanted growing competition, ‘dinosaur’ energy companies have lobbied their governments, many times with success, for new laws that make it more difficult for citizens and their energy communities to compete. One only needs to look at Germany. After feed-in tariffs were scrapped and replaced with tendering schemes in 2014, the creation of new REScoops decreased by 60%.

And that’s not all. In Western European countries, the number of community energy projects has steadily increased over time. However, in most Eastern European countries it is still virtually impossible for citizens to do the same. This is not for pure lack of desire by citizens there to set up projects – policy frameworks play a big role in allowing or even helping them.

The Commission’s proposals address these issues. Perhaps most importantly, they guarantee that REScoops are entitled to participate in the energy market, not just through generation and supply of renewables, but throughout the entire energy system. They will ensure Member States have legal frameworks in place to support REScoops, simplify over burdensome regulations, and ensure they are not discriminated against. In particular, they will help ensure that REScoop’s are not excluded from tenders simply because they have less financial and human resources than larger players with big portfolios of projects.

There is still a need to go further. National regulators need to be encouraged to better understand the REScoop model, but there is no strong push at the moment to change this. Renewable energy cooperatives also need to be ensured a seat at the table as further European energy regulations and guidelines are developed, particularly through a potential new DSO body. REScoops need guarantees that they will be able to input into national plans that Member States develop in order to contribute to the achievement of the EU’s 2030 climate and energy goals.

Overall, the Commission has demonstrated that it understands the success of the energy transition hinges on ensuring local citizens can exercise their right to choose. This extends to citizens generating and supplying themselves – both individually and collectively – with renewable energy.

The outcome on the details is far from certain. It is now time for national and EU politicians, decision makers and regulators to jump on board with the idea.

One thing is certain though: REScoops will continue to trail blaze the energy sector to make it more democratic and beneficial for citizens. They just need the space to act.

The views expressed in opinion articles published on euronews do not represent our editorial position

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Scotland eyes 50% renewable energy by 2030 in shift away from North Sea oil

The Scottish government has taken the first steps to heavily cutting the country’s reliance on North Sea oil and gas after calling for 50% of Scotland’s entire energy needs to come from renewables.

In a subtle but significant shift of emphasis for the Scottish National party after decades championing North Sea production, ministers unveiled a new energy strategy intended to push motorists, homeowners and businesses into using low- or zero-carbon green energy sources for half their energy needs by 2030.

Currently, 47% of Scotland’s total energy use comes from petroleum products largely extracted from Scotland’s North Sea oil platforms, and 27% from domestic and imported natural gas needed for home heating.

With opposition parties and environment groups expressing scepticism about a lack of detail in the new strategy, Scottish ministers privately admit cutting oil use is their biggest challenge in hitting far tougher targets unveiled last week to reduce Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 66% by 2032.

While North Sea oil and gas production is in decline as reserves run dry, the new strategy implies Scotland will need to accelerate its transition to a low-carbon economy faster than reserves run out to hit both targets.

Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish energy minister, told MSPs on Tuesday that the new energy target was intended to directly support that climate target. Scottish renewables already supplied nearly 60% of Scotland’s domestic electricity use, Scottish islands were pioneering energy self-sufficiency, and community-owned renewable schemes now had an installed capacity of 595mw, he said.

Wheelhouse said: “We can all take pride in such successes, however, it is clear that more progress will be required – particularly in the supply of low-carbon heat and transport – if we are to remain on track to meet our ambitious climate change goals.”

It would put pressure on onshore windfarm operators to make their wind energy so cheap that it would not require a subsidy. Bus companies would be asked to invest in hydrogen-powered buses, and motorists expected to shift to electric cars.

Renewables industry sources say hitting that much higher target could be slower and harder than Wheelhouse admitted because the Scottish government is expected to miss its target of supplying 100% of Scotland’s domestic electricity needs from this source by 2020.

Industry analysts believe 87% will be renewable by 2020, in part because offshore wind power projects have been slower than expected. Wheelhouse pointed out, however, that the cost of offshore wind had fallen faster than expected, by 32% since 2012.

The draft energy strategy, released for public consultation on Tuesday, failed to deal with substantial questions about the costs of meeting the new target, sidestepped Scotland’s continuing use of nuclear energy and also the exact mix and quantity of green energy schemes now needed by 2030.

The paper also again sidestepped a decision on the future of fracking of Scotland’s large shale oil and gas reserves, with ministers are at odds over allowing it or banning it on climate and environmental grounds.

 

An oil platform in the North Sea.

An oil platform in the North Sea. Nearly half of the country’s energy comes from the area Photograph: StatoilHydro / Oyvind Hagen / HO/EPA

Environmentalists, opposition parties and SNP activists are putting the Scottish government under heavy pressure to convert an existing moratorium on fracking into a permanent ban.

Wheelhouse said ministers were taking an “evidence-based and measured approach” and would soon launch a new public consultation on whether to allow fracking.

And despite standing for election on strong anti-nuclear platforms, Scottish ministers have admitted they are content to see the life of Scotland’s two nuclear power stations at Hunterston and Torness to be extended further, beyond their current contracts that run until 2023 and 2030 respectively.

Nuclear power provided 35% of Scotland’s electricity in 2015. EDF, the French-owned utility that operates the two stations, is building up a technical case to win support from the UK’s nuclear regulator to extend both stations’ operating lives by several years each.

That strategy is supported by Scottish ministers. Wheelhouse’s energy paper had very little detail on what power sources would provide the remaining 50% of Scotland’s energy needs but it said “thermal energy” – power provided by conventional nuclear or gas-fired stations – would be a significant part of that.

While all opposition parties welcomed Wheelhouse’s overall 50% target, they were immensely critical about the lack of detail in the paper, particularly on the costs and funding of the strategy.

Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s energy spokeswoman, said the SNP often set targets it failed to meet. “Scotland has previously been required to import energy from elsewhere in the UK, particularly baseload power from England,” she said. “Yet the SNP’s energy strategy provides little detail about how to keep the lights on.”

Mark Ruskell, a Scottish Green party MSP, said it remained unclear how the target for 80% of homes to use low-carbon heat by 2032 would be delivered, since the 2025 target was just 18% and current funding levels were inadequate.

“Warming our homes affordably and with low-carbon power is a priority but the Scottish government’s targets don’t make sense,” he said. “There’s too much trust in a technological miracle in the future and not enough action on fuel poverty today.”

Gina Hanrahan, the climate and energy policy officer at environmental group WWF Scotland, said the strategy “fails to put enough meat on the bones of the commitment to transform the energy efficiency of existing homes”. She added: “With 1.5m cold homes in Scotland, these proposals are too slow and underfunded.”


Renewable energy helps push value of Scotland's trade with rest of UK to £50bn

Scottish trade with the rest of the UK outweighed exports to the European Union by a factor of four to one, according to latest figures from the Scottish Government.

The latest Exports Statistics Scotland report for 2015 puts the value of goods and services sold to the rest of the UK at £49.8bn. During the same period, exports to the EU were worth £12.3bn.

Both figures were up by 4.4% on the previous year. The Government said the increase in exports to the rest of the UK was driven by utilities such as electricity, much of which came from renewables, with petroleum and chemicals driving the rise in EU exports.

The gap between the two is a battleground in the Brexit debate, with the Scottish Government pushing for continued access to EU markets.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the domestic market in the UK is “far and away the most important” for Scotland's businesses (Photo: Getty)

The latest figures do not take account of Scottish goods in the supply chain which are initially sold to UK customers who then export those items on into Europe as part of a larger finished product.

Figures on the value of goods re-exported are not available, though the government points out that more than half of exports to the rest of the UK are services in areas such as the financial sector, which are unlikely to be re-exported abroad.

Commenting on the figures, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the domestic market in the UK is “far and away the most important” for Scotland's businesses.

“The Scottish Government's own figures show our trade with the rest of the UK is worth four times our exports to the EU,” he said. “Businesses in Scotland sold £37.5bn more in goods and services to their own market in the UK than they did to all 27 EU countries put together.”

The statistics also show that the total value of Scotland's international exports rose to £28.7bn in 2015, up from £27.7bn in the previous year. The US continues to be Scotland's single largest overseas market outside the EU, worth sales of £4.6bn.