How we won a climate game-changer
A new horizon is opening for energy ownership and democracy in Europe. After a five-year-long campaign for community energy, pioneered by Friends of the Earth Europe, communities and households have won new EU rights to generate, consume and sell their own renewable energy.
This golden nugget is hidden amidst an otherwise mixed, jumbo-package of EU legislation on clean energy. The legislation lifts some major constraints hampering community renewable energy in many EU countries. If put fully into practice, these new rights could help unleash a more diverse, democratic and decentralised renewable energy system. This could be a game-changer for Europe’s fossil-free energy transformation – and the climate.
Here is the story of this grassroots-led campaign and its new victory.
1. Why fight for energy democracy?
Our current profit-driven energy system is in the hands of big energy companies that are keeping us hooked on a high-consumption, fossil-fueled economy. The growth of renewables so far, though significant, has not been enough to stop the rise in fossil fuel use. To prevent climate breakdown, we need to break free of the power of the fossil fuel industry – which means putting energy in the hands of communities.
All over Europe, this decentralised revolution has started. Europe now has 2,500 renewable energy cooperatives. In Germany, 1.5 million citizens generate electricity on their roofs – helping to make German citizen energy Europe’s 14th biggest energy ‘retailer’. Cities, citizens, and communities have been at the cutting edge of renewable energy for years – investing in renewable generation, energy storage, and energy savings solutions to reduce their consumption. But it needs to grow massively.
Community and citizen energy bring diverse benefits. Not only are these projects cutting carbon emissions, they have solidarity as a central value, often involving disadvantaged members of their communities. When people get involved in determining their energy, they make the choice that is best for their community and the planet: they save energy, fight energy poverty, and invest in renewable solutions. They are showing us the way forward.
However, these projects have in recent years faced growing obstacles. This is why, since 2013, Friends of the Earth has been putting all of our strength behind this movement.
2. What we won
Buried within the EU’s ‘clean energy package’ that has just wrapped up, are laws that acknowledge the special value of community energy.
EU lawmakers have recognised the benefits of community energy for green job creation, community development, local value creation, energy savings, energy poverty alleviation, and promoting renewable energy. And they have put in empowering measures to help communities unlock the potential.
The laws grant rights for all Europeans and communities to set up their own energy projects, and to consume, store and sell the energy they produce. They require countries to assess any legal and administrative obstacles that prevent their development – and to start dismantling them. This is a huge step for countries where community power has in recent years been hindered by backwards laws, like in Spain or Poland.
Now, everyone in principle has the means to participate in the energy revolution we need.
3. How we won
With big energy, vested fossil fuel interests and political inertia blocking our way, this community power victory is no small feat – and could never have been won alone.
What started off as a small fringe voice, ended up becoming well recognised fact – and now established law. We knew that the big 2030 clean energy package that emerged from the European Commission in 2016 a year after the Paris climate agreement, would be a key opportunity to win political backing for citizen and community renewable energy solutions – and to lift some of the many obstacles in their way. People power, collective organising, cooperation, and persistence were what allowed us to deliver.
In Friends of the Earth Europe, we have been working tirelessly with our network of national members, to engage energy cooperatives, municipalities, cities, renewables developers, environmental and social organisations, researchers, engaged individuals and trade unions to discuss energy ownership.
A first step was awareness. Many people in Europe still do not know what community renewable energy is, and there are great differences in context across the continent. There still is a perception that community projects are only a small part of the solution. A lot of our job was simply to share stories and knowledge, to spread the word.
A second step was building a movement. Our work involved building bridges to new organisations, getting more people in the room to start thinking about how to make the energy transition happen. Our coalition brought together many diverse organisations, and together, we imagined the future we want.
Finally, thanks to the publicity, policy advocacy and networks we generated with allies in Brussels and across Europe – despite the resistance of some governments – we were able to build support for community energy at each step of the way.
Our work will not stop. The energy revolution will not be won overnight.
Having won this huge legal step, a new chapter of our campaign must open, to spread the news, and ensure every EU country makes the most of these new possibilities and puts them into practice.
We need to educate ourselves, communities and build people power to make it happen. This is crucial, long term work, that we need to keep scaling up, with our member groups all over Europe and in partnership with our allies.
Climate change impacts are getting worse, but the movement to halt this crisis is also gaining strength. The only thing we have to fear is hopelessness.
Take a look back
July 2013: Groups call for energy democracy
October 2013: Celebrating community power
November 2013: The people’s windmill calls for an energy revolution
February 2014: We love community power initiative
May 2014: Community power is the future
May 2014: A new solar project in Spain
October 2014: Looking at how community power is expanding
February 2016: Pushing the Commission to embrace community power
September 2016: Study: half of citizens could power Europe
July 2017: The first energy democracy event
October 2017: Community power movement gains momentum
Here are all our ‘co-power’ project publications.