Trust, engagement and inclusion: the energy of a community

When a sense of ownership rhymes with ethical practices and economic inclusion. Energy communities might succeed where politics failed: rebuilding trust and engagement in civil society through new forms of commitment and direct democracy

It’s not only about the money—and it’s not only about the environment, either. “Energy communities don’t only drive technological innovation, but also social innovation,” affirms Sara Tachelet, communication manager at, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives.

“Energy” and “community” are indeed equally essential elements in this concept, for which there are two official definitions contained in the two EU directives that have regulated energy communities since 2018 and 2019, respectively. The eNeuron project web page sums it up like this: “A local energy community (LEC) is a set of energy users who have decided to make common choices about how to meet their energy needs. Users seek to maximise the benefits of this collegial bottom-up approach by drawing on a range of electricity and heat technologies, on energy storage and on optimised management of energy flows. LECs are a key component in the transition towards green, decarbonised power from local and renewable sources.”

The key phrases in this definition are “have decided to make common choices” and “collegial bottom-up approach.” Or, as Marialaura Di Somma, member of the eNeuron project Advisory Board puts it, “The main objective of the energy community is to facilitate the participation of end users in energy management and, above all, to facilitate the process of democratic decision-making.” More specifically, says Tachelet, “Citizens directly participate in the energy project themselves through ownership, for example having shares, but also being part of the decision-making processes.” This approach opens a whole universe of new practices and habits adopted by the members of an energy community, if compared with people who are not part of one.

First of all, being part of an energy community has moral implications. Or at least it’s what Robert-Jan Geerts used to think back in 2017, when he published his PhD dissertation Philosophical Explorations on Energy Transition, where, in short, he theorised that the current opacity, specifically of the electric system (how and where the energy is extracted and produced, how it reaches our homes, how much of it is really consumed etc.) is an obstacle to any informed, ethical practice. In this respect, being part of an energy community would imply having access to this information and, as a consequence, becoming, in a way, “more moral”.

Geerts, who studied both mechanical engineering and philosophy, now works in an energy community in the city of Wageningen in the Netherlands. He says that his experience in the field made him change his mind: “I don’t think anymore that the way to become better consumers and to have a more sustainable practice is for everybody to understand everything. While that would be nice, I think it’s impossible.

This is due to the complexity of the modern world, but sometimes also to lack of education. Which is also one of the main barriers in convincing some consumers to become prosumers – or active energy consumers – because they can’t see how the effort to make the switch is worth it. There is also some scepticism, points out eNeuron project Coordinator Maria Valenti: “Being part of an energy community means making your consumption data available, it means making your habits available, giving someone else information that is somehow considered sensitive.”

This is why, concludes Di Somma, “We have to establish a process of energy literacy as well as of consumer and prosumer activation and engagement through digitalization and ICT” so that users become aware of the many social benefits linked to energy communities: “Energy democracy increases the user’s sense of ownership in energy management. The main benefit is that users decide by themselves how to self-consume the energy produced, and they free themselves from the grid and the volatility of energy prices.”

But what happens exactly in an energy community? There are all kinds of entities of this kind, small or large, organised as cooperatives or not. Let’s take the example of the one where Geerts works. He says it involves a neighbourhood of about 450 households, and some of them are tenants. A cooperative has been created, which is made of about a third of the neighbourhood. “There is a board of 6 or 7 people – Geerts explains – and a few more people who are more closely involved, and then there is a project team, people who are paid and spend all their working day on the project. Two of them currently live in the neighbourhood, and then there are a few people from elsewhere on the project team because we couldn’t find all the skills needed in the neighbourhood itself.” He observes that the homeowners are much more involved in the cooperative than the renters, probably because renters feel they don’t belong in the decision-making process.

Then, there is the issue of inclusion in the broadest sense. “The energy sector, in general, is still populated by white, middle-aged men,” complains Tachelet, “but that is definitely on our radar. For example, we’re doing work on gender power, like trying to encourage our members to implement gender action plans.” Economic inclusion is to be taken into account as well. Not everyone, for example, can afford to participate financially in a cooperative. Here, we see how the community activates its best resources. An example is Eeklo, a municipality in Belgium, where two types of shares were created for an Ecopower wind project: regular and social shares. The municipality prefinanced the social shares for vulnerable households. These households could then become part of the cooperative, so their energy bills dropped, and little by little, they could save money and become regular shareholders.

A less flagrant issue that Geerts has noticed in the community where he works is related to trust: “People have less trust in experts, in governments, and in big corporations; they don’t know who to trust anymore. And what I see in this particular neighbourhood is that there are a few people now who understand way more than ordinary citizens about how a heating system works, they are basically new citizen experts, and they are really trusted because they’re neighbours, so all the neighbours keep telling them that they really appreciate how much effort they put into this, so they don’t have to”, he explains. In the end, for some people energy communities like this might be a way back to engage in politics or civil society after losing all trust in the system.

Article by Selene Verri

Photo from Unsplash

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