Europe shows how local communities can make money from renewables

| 13th August 2010

In places like Freiburg, in Germany, people are forging ahead with community-owned renewable energy projects

Kate Hathway from the local communities charity Urban Forum says we should look to Europe for tips on successful community renewable energy projects

Standing on the streets of Freiburg in Germany is frustrating. It’s the same in Kristianstad in Sweden or on the Baltic island of Gotland. Why? Well the same green investment that has been happening in the UK with so little effect has worked on these European streets.

And you don’t need to be a detective to find out why. They’ll tell you in the tourist office or even on the street if you stop and ask. And the answers don’t involve a sudden influx of ‘greenies’ or any form of magic either! It just consists of hard work and countless leaps of faith by local councillors working in tandem with community activists.

These are the places I came to look at when writing my report – 'Community Power Empowers' – for third sector umbrella body, Urban Forum.

I hope this is a timely report – not only because it has been published at the same time as the UK Government’s own renewable energy microgeneration strategy – but that it offers a blueprint for how the government could turn its rhetoric into reality by following critical factors for success in community and municipal energy partnerships across Europe.

Examples are shown throughout the report demonstrating visionary and bold leadership, meaningful public involvement, and the importance of education at all ages. When looking at creating cultures for community ownership and co-operatives the report finds that the technology and science is readily available and so it’s down to political and cultural frameworks to make the changes needed for low carbon lifestyles.

What works for them?

Community Power Empowers finds common characteristics that exist throughout Europe which are critical in developing a wide range of successful community-owned, co-operative and municipal-led, renewable energy projects that create long-term cultural change.

It finds that people across Europe who are paying virtually no energy bills or are making a profit from electricity that they produce – combined with a ‘green way of thinking’ on a day-to-day basis – share a number of characteristics other than an individual desire for change. It’s all about encouragement and support.

Firstly, a vision and challenge is set out for a local area by local leaders, including goals of how this vision will be achieved. For example – ‘We’re going to be the greenest city in Europe’; or ‘We’re going to be fossil fuel free by 2020’ and so on.

People are given a ‘real’ say in how they can help shape the low carbon vision. It’s not that the process of involvement in neighbourhood-level planning is any different to the UK’s – it’s just that it is both widespread and exists as a legislative process in the first place.

Ideas are listened to and incorporated into action very quickly. The gap of leaving marginal voices out of the debate is quickly closed. People campaign and their concerns are taken very seriously. More investment is made by local authorities to ensure a well informed public, capable of putting informed arguments forward, and so the upward spiral continues towards a more participative democracy where voice and influence are seen as a vital part of community life.

The low-carbon coach

Nobody is left behind. In Freiburg, for example, people can contact the local authority for the help of a ‘low carbon coach’ who audits their energy usage, sets them goals and essentially puts them on their very own 'CO2 diet'. With regular follow-up sessions, the individual is soon on their way to a new 'carbon-slim' lifestyle, hopefully spreading the word as they go.

Once an individual, family, or community understands the basics of energy savings and has received financial support to install some form of micro-power, how do they progress in their low carbon journey? They may stay at this level and this is fine, or they may hop on a tram to visit the numerous innovative displays of technology, architecture, live/work communities, energy co-operatives  – all with sustainability at the very heart of their design.

Green communities in cities like Copenhagen, Freiburg and Kristianstad often quickly reach a tipping point where they become hotbeds of innovation and inspiration. This in turn spreads like wildfire amongst other communities encouraging further local action. 

Collective action and partnerships are encouraged and supported. The people of Freiburg and Copenhagen don’t feel that they’re fighting a battle on their own – they’re in it together with their neighbours, local public bodies and the private sector.

Joining a co-operative

If people don’t have the interest or inclination to run their own ‘green energy’ business, there are opportunities to be part of an energy co-operative, creating a sense of ownership and assuming the responsibility which comes with that. By organising together, co-operative members can explore energy management services, employment, training and regeneration, as well as energy conservation programmes.

None of this is difficult. But it does require energy; political commitment and support. Standing on that street in Freiburg, it looked frustratingly easy.

You can read the full report 'Community Power Empowers' on the Urban Forum website

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