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Proceeding Paper

Energy Communities for Just Energy Transitions on a Local Scale: Initial Lessons from the Lightness Project †

DuneWorks, Torenallee 45, 5617 BA Eindhoven, The Netherlands
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Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Presented at the Sustainable Places 2021, Rome, Italy, 29 September–1 October 2021.
Environ. Sci. Proc. 2021, 11(1), 29; https://doi.org/10.3390/environsciproc2021011029
Published: 9 December 2021
(This article belongs to the Proceedings of The 9th Annual Edition of Sustainable Places (SP 2021))

Abstract

:
New energy communities that produce, store, trade and distribute renewable energy guided by innovative digital platforms are currently emerging in many EU member states. Expectations about these communities and their contribution to a ‘just engagement’ of citizens in energy transition are high. However, detailed monitoring of the degree to which these expectations have been realised thus far is often lacking. An innovative way to measure the just engagement of end-users as one of these expectations is based on criteria from environmental justice theories that have developed in recent years. This paper describes the initiation of seven pilot communities in five countries around a specific digital platform, and their assessment with a tailored environmental, justice-based framework. Based on the assessment—part of the ongoing Horizon 2020 project, ‘Lightness’—several challenges to just engagement are identified that are relevant for the project and beyond.

1. Introduction

The European Union has set the ambitious goal to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The ‘European Green Deal’ and the ‘Fit for 55’ package specify the policy measures toward that goal and toward an interim target of 55% emission reduction in 2030 [1,2]. In order to reach these goals, the European Commission strives for a ‘just transition’ that addresses ‘the challenge at the heart of Europe’s green transition (…) to make sure the benefits and opportunities that come with it are available to all, as quickly and as fairly as possible’ [2].
The stimulation of energy communities is seen as an important instrument to contribute to a fair transition and to public support for reaching emission reduction targets in the energy sector: ‘[Energy communities] contribute to increase public acceptance of renewable energy projects and make it easier to attract private investments in the clean energy transition. At the same time, they have the potential to provide direct benefits to citizens by advancing energy efficiency and lowering their electricity bills’ [3]. This paper discusses the development of seven energy communities in five countries and their monitoring and evaluation with respect to their contribution toward a just energy transition in the European Horizon 2020 project, ‘Lightness’ [4].

2. Method

Some key characteristics of the initial energy communities from which the Lightness project starts are listed in Table 1.
The initial energy communities are the pool from which Lightness recruits participants for the pilots. The aim is that, in each of the pilots—based on their specific local circumstances—the ICT platform will inform participants about their own energy bill and renewable energy consumption and generation, provide feedback and tips for behavioural change based on their consumption and generation performance in comparison to other pilot group participants, and introduce a gaming element to stimulate competition between the pilot participants. In addition, additional widgets are to be developed to provide for ‘gaming’ and some community element in the pilots. In France, the pilot participants are the energy managers of the participating businesses; in the other countries, participants are residents (owners or tenants).
The performance of the pilots with respect to just engagement is measured based on the most recent academic insights into energy justice and environmental justice. Energy justice entails at least three main elements: recognition of the aims and goals of participants, participative procedures, and a fair distribution of benefits and burdens between all stakeholders involved [5,6,7]. The concept of environmental justice adds to these key preconditions for a just transition the aspects of recognizing the capabilities of participants and providing them with responsibilities for the outcomes of their participation [8,9,10,11].
Taking into account these justice aspects, Breukers et al. [12] developed a practical tool for monitoring and evaluating just engagement in local energy projects. The model consists of six elements: recognition, participation, distribution, capabilities, responsibilities, and learning. This ‘Voicer model’ is also used in the Lightness project to assess how the engagement activities are performing when assessed in terms of the six key elements of a just approach. As such, the monitoring performed with the Voicer model is the starting point of the learning process that feeds back into the ICT platform and engagement within and beyond the project.

3. Results

The Lightness project started in December 2020 and will run for three years. It is, therefore, still in its initial stages; pilots are just beginning to initialize their engagement plans and recruiting. All results so far must be viewed within this context. As a first step in the learning process, the Voicer model was operationalized for the Lightness project. This model involves identifying one key performance indicator per Voicer element and specifying this overall indicator for four main project phases that will occur in each of the five pilots: pre-engagement, recruitment, engagement, and post-engagement/evaluation [13]. To ensure these important justice considerations are taken on board by the pilot leads in the design of the engagement and recruiting plans, four workshops were held to train pilot leaders in the just engagement of participants. Table 2 gives an overview of the initial indicator framework developed for the ongoing project phases of pre-engagement and recruitment.
As a second step in the monitoring and evaluation process, the operationalized Voicer framework was applied to the first phases of the Lightness project. In this way, several challenges for just engagement were identified that deserve further attention in this project and beyond.
When assessing participation, it has been found that the pilot sites differ largely in terms of the underlying social infrastructures serving as a basis for study recruitment. In Italy, the pilot site consists of one building in which all residents are formally and informally well connected. This has already resulted in all residents agreeing to participate in the project. Participants still have to be recruited in the other communities, where social connections are far weaker. In these communities, potential participants, in general, are only formally linked, respectively, as socios of a village energy cooperative (Spain), as energy managers of an enterprise in a business park (France), or as residents of a neighbourhood community consisting of several high-rise buildings (Poland). In the Netherlands, even formal links between the residents do not exist apart from living in the same neighbourhood, of which most buildings are zero-energy housing built by the same construction company.
When looking into recognition, the assessment suggests that there is a tension between the ICT platform development and taking into account the individual wishes and needs of participants. Whereas the former asks for a certain degree of standardisation and categorisation of participants’ views to allow for economies of scale and standardisation, the latter requires large flexibility and adaptability from the platform design, in terms of both the user interface as well as individualised feedback that can be provided. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether the gaming design currently embedded in the main project ICT platform is appealing to different groups of potential participants, as deeper insights into participants’ wishes and needs per pilot site have yet to be acquired.
Distribution and capacities are further key points to take into account from the pilots. The current platform design allows participants to gain ‘points’ in competition with other participants. National regulations in the various countries still make it unclear to what extent the points gained through behaving in more environmentally friendly ways can be turned into real financial profits in each pilot site. Differing capacities are, to some extent, addressed by the platform by unlocking different levels of information for different groups of participants; however, the central position of an ICT platform in the project by itself excludes the participation of groups that are not computer literate.
Responsibilities and learning processes also have to be carefully monitored in the further stages of the project. They are currently addressed in the project through three main activities: the design of user participation forms that can make transparent all responsibilities of project participants, the monitoring and evaluation framework described in this paper, and dedicated workshops for pilot leads. To what extent these are successful can only be concluded in later stages of the project.
Finally, the initial assessment of the just engagement aspects of the Lightness project raises a more fundamental question about what exactly makes an ‘energy community’. Legally, while all initial ‘communities’ in the Lightness project, in some way or another, involve ‘energy’ as a binding concept, most of them do not centre around renewables, emission reduction, or environmental issues. Some of them (Netherlands, France) are not even a formal community in the sense of the broad EU definitions of ‘citizen’ or ‘renewable’ energy communities [14,15]. Socially, using the same ICT platform and comparing their own energy use to that of other platform users, by itself, will not necessarily result in more ‘community’ ties between residents or empower them into developing a shared ‘community’ energy vision for the future. Therefore, a more precise definition of what exactly makes an energy community would help trigger more tailored support for a just transition via such communities.

4. Conclusions

The present paper shows that exactly what results in just engagement in a project, such as Lightness, is not a given. Moreover, despite the formal and general EU definitions of ‘citizen’ and ‘renewable’ energy communities, what exactly constitutes an ‘energy community’ and how it relates to ‘just transition’ is still an open question. The continued monitoring and evaluation of the challenges impeding justice, and the evolution of the energy communities in the Lightness project in the coming years, therefore, have to provide further insights into these important questions.

Author Contributions

Writing—original draft preparation, S.S.; writing—review and editing, R.M., J.Y. and L.L. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Funding

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 953020.

Data Availability Statement

See for more information https://www.lightness-project.eu/ (accessed on 20 September 2021).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

References

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Table 1. Main characteristics of initial energy communities in the Lightness project.
Table 1. Main characteristics of initial energy communities in the Lightness project.
Existing Energy-Related
Community
Main Characteristics of Initial Energy CommunitySize of Initial CommunitySize of Pilot Community Aimed at
1. Italy (Cagliari—Condominium)One apartment block with cooperative of apartment owners dealing with all building issues8 households8 households
2. France (Chambery—Technolac business park)Innovative business park230 businesses and university20 businesses
3. Spain (Alginet)Existing cooperative electricity supplier, supplying Alginet village13,000 inhabitants15–30 households
4. Poland (Wroclaw, Spoldzielnia Poludnie)Cooperative of apartment owners dealing with all building issues260 households 10–20 households
5–7. Netherlands (Woerden, Helden and Delft ‘Zero-on-the-Meter’ (ZOM) and non-ZOM houses)Owners and tenants of ZOM houses and apartments newly built or renovated by one construction company, plus a selection of non-ZOM houses in the same neighbourhood>200 households15–30 households
Table 2. Lightness just engagement framework, pre-engagement and recruitment phases.
Table 2. Lightness just engagement framework, pre-engagement and recruitment phases.
Just Engagement IndicatorPre-Engagement PhaseRecruitment Phase
RecognitionNeeds, wishes, and ambitions of community members are recognizedRoles, aims, and interests of stakeholders are identified
Formal and informal structures of community are identified
All potential participants feel recognized and respected in the way they are approached with the chosen recruitment instruments
ParticipationExisting formal and informal structures, activities, and ambitions of the community are recognizedReadiness conditions for pilot and impact on participation are assessedA diverse and sufficiently large group of participants is being recruited
People are recruited after receiving complete, accessible, and trustworthy information and after giving their formal consent
DistributionAll relevant stakeholders and their respective stakes are acknowledgedPotential benefits, costs, and risks of pilot activities for all stakeholders are identifiedParticipants and stakeholders feel that costs and benefits incurred through the pilot are distributed fairly among community members and between the community and related stakeholders
CapacitiesThe group of community members participating in the pilot project is representative of their community in terms of age, gender, education, income, and ethnicityRequired capacities for meaningfully engaging in the project activities and valorising them are identified (Potential) participants feel capable of meaningfully participating in the project; barriers for meaningful participation through lack of capacities are identified and addressed
ResponsibilitiesCommunity members have an effective voice and vote in decision-making proceduresActivities in which participants are involved are identified, including possible responsibilitiesClear communication of expectations of participants throughout the project, as far as known
Participants formally consent to take up responsibilities
LearningFull and trustworthy information about the pilot project and the activities deployed therein is readily accessiblePilot leaders mutually discuss and reflect on planned engagement activities; Pilot leaders feel fully equipped to carry out the engagement processKey process and outcome lessons from each engagement phase are recorded and used for the final recommendations for replication and scaling up
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MDPI and ACS Style

Slingerland, S.; Young, J.; Mourik, R.; Lutz, L. Energy Communities for Just Energy Transitions on a Local Scale: Initial Lessons from the Lightness Project. Environ. Sci. Proc. 2021, 11, 29. https://doi.org/10.3390/environsciproc2021011029

AMA Style

Slingerland S, Young J, Mourik R, Lutz L. Energy Communities for Just Energy Transitions on a Local Scale: Initial Lessons from the Lightness Project. Environmental Sciences Proceedings. 2021; 11(1):29. https://doi.org/10.3390/environsciproc2021011029

Chicago/Turabian Style

Slingerland, Stephan, Jordan Young, Ruth Mourik, and Lena Lutz. 2021. "Energy Communities for Just Energy Transitions on a Local Scale: Initial Lessons from the Lightness Project" Environmental Sciences Proceedings 11, no. 1: 29. https://doi.org/10.3390/environsciproc2021011029

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