Europe’s energy citizens are on the rise – if we let them
Small-scale renewable energy sources are being built all over Europe. Examples from the Czech Republic show that their success depends on adjusting them to the local environment and making sources for financing, such as EU funding, more accessible.
Dan Heuer, Czech energy and climate campaigner | 6 November 2017
Energy citizens in the Czech Republic., clock-wise from the upper left: Petr Červený, Marek Černocký, Milan Kazda, Pavel Štěpánek.
Following the fast-paced innovation in renewable technologies in recent years many small businesses, municipalities, communities or single families now own renewable energy sources. More Europeans are becoming so-called “energy citizens” – investing in their own energy source for various reasons. Some want to improve their energy efficiency and save money for bills, while others want to become self-sufficient or make profits.
Well documented case studies demonstrate that small-scale renewables bring a plethora of benefits for their owners. Often, however, individual cases cannot be replicated elsewhere because their implementation and benefits depend on specific local characteristics. The following stories illustrate this in sharp relief – capturing some of the struggles and successes of real citizens. (You can read these stories in more detail at the People’s Budget website.)
Lessons in renewables
One prime example is the complex of the technical school in Volyně, Czech Republic. The school replaced its old coal boiler with one running on biomass and added a heat pump since the former heating was expensive and polluted local air. The school and its employees solved the problem by using the original boiler house and its heat distribution network. Now, the school can regulate the use of resources and adjust the temperature in the school’s rooms depending on the specific needs. As a result, the energy consumption was decreased, along with heating costs for many years to come. The investment was financed by European funds and the money saved from the project will go back into the development of the school.
On the other side of the Czech Republic, the municipality Velká Kraš purchased wind turbines in the early nineties. The specific shape of the local hills made this option viable, due to wind currents that meet while crossing the mountains. The town had received EU funding to partly cover the investment but had trouble with its profitability due to unstable electricity prices. Today, however, the power plant brings CZK 1.5 million (EUR 57.6 thousands). The mayor is happy that the income is generated from a local project, but the troubles associated with price instability made the mayor cautious. She does not want to repeat the endeavour.
The town Knežice, which lies in the lowlands of the river Elbe, chose a different strategy. It built a biogas station, a reaction to the unused energy potential of local bio-waste. Manure was collected from an agricultural cooperative, waste from the forests and gardens, the content of septic tanks and food waste from nearby restaurants and canteens. The town sells the produced electricity to the electricity grid and uses the generated heat itself. Most of the town’s houses are being heated by the biomass boiler. The town’s energy supply has become self-sufficient. Like Velká Kraš, the town also paid part of the investment through EU funds.
Renewable financing for charities
Marek Cernocky from the non-governmental organisation Energeia focused on hydropower. The organisation managed to collect finances to cover part of the investment from individual donors and from EU funds, while the remaining costs were covered by loans. All the profit of the power plant is invested in social services and educational programmes provided by Energeia. In contrast to so many other organisations in the Czech Republic, the donors of the organisation do not finance specific activities anymore, but instead participate in repaying the loan. The donations increase the power plant’s profitability and are thus revalued. Energeia transformed irregular donations in a stable, almost inexhaustible income which increases as the loan is being repaid.
From food to energy self-sufficiency
Lastly, on the border of Šumava national park a bio-farmer settled with the goal of becoming self-sufficient in food and energy supplies. To achieve his goal, he purchased photovoltaic panels. These panels are placed on the huge roof of a hayloft, which is naturally faced to the south to dry the hay as much as possible. The panels have the potential to be his sole source of energy. However, the farmer has to find a way to accumulate the electricity generated from the panels so that the energy could be used during the evening.
What these stories prove
Specific projects of small renewable energy sources often cannot be replicated easily in other places. All of them are unique in that they use the concrete characteristics of the given environment, a factor which cannot be ignored while sourcing energy.
Yet, despite the situational differences, there are plenty of ways to create and use renewable energy. Today, everybody has the potential to purchase or produce one’s own renewable energy installation; one only needs to think about the type of the source, how it can be incorporated into the environment, and if there are possible community benefits.
One of the crucial recurring needs is, however, the financing of these investments. Most of the described projects depend on loans or donations. Usually, the investments are too big to be covered individually or by small organisations. EU funds are a popular solution for financing these projects but are not always accessible and great differences exist across countries regarding the eligibility of who and what type of project can benefit from EU funds.
An EU budget that creates targeted financing solutions for energy citizens, and improving the EU rules around EU funds to improve equitable access to financing is part of the solution needed.
Another challenge lies not in creating and implementing the projects, but in the intricacy of the paperwork and political affairs. The municipalities, communities, and individuals are more often stopped by complications in submitting their proposals. In order to help local communities, politicians should set rules for making EU funds more accessible to the public after 2020 and advocate for the ease of proposing local projects.
As one part of the solution, “one stop shops” could be a useful tool how to make EU funds more accessible for European citizens. Single local or regional contact points where citizens can come for advice and to help to arrange all aspects of their RES installation – including applying for EU co-financed support schemes.
There are multiple examples showing individuals striving to create sustainable, local energy sources. With the help from the EU and local politicians, these individuals will be able to make their dreams a reality.