Citizens are at the core of the EU’s most ambitious energy strategy to date, the Energy Union, according to the European Commission. But how exactly could they get involved? Since 2012 social scientists with the R&Dialogue project have been working on processes to engage citizens, NGOs and industry in the energy transition. Their conclusion: citizens and companies should cooperate in participatory, ‘democratic’ structures to create a low-carbon economy . The European Commission seems to buy into this idea, judging from statements of senior staff. Marie Donnelly, a Director at DG Energy calls energy democracy “a great idea”. Freelance journalist Clare Taylor discusses the ramifications.
On 18 November, the first update on the Energy Union strategy was published, which re-iterated: “For the transition to be successful and socially fair, citizens will have to take ownership of this process by actively participating in the energy market, as they are the ones who ultimately should benefit from it.”
The Energy Union promises a number of benefits for citizens, such as improved support for ‘prosumers’, with better conditions for decentralised energy production, although it does not say how this should be done. Another key Energy Union goal, linking national electricity grids, is also intended to give citizens a large role by promoting more competition and price transparency, as Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, said in a response to the Energy Union package.
Energy Union tour
Following the adoption of the Energy Union Framework Strategy, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič set out to visit all Member States to bring the ideas of the Energy Union closer to the people. His Energy Union Tour was meant to discuss the Commission’s plans with governments, national parliaments, energy and other industries, social partners, consumers, students, and citizens.
Even – or perhaps especially – in regions making good progress towards sustainable energy, the need for dialogue and increased participation is felt strongly
It is not clear what the effects of Šefčovič’s tour have been. Despite the potential gains for consumers, most still need to figure out how to make the energy transition work for them. For example, learning how to use smart meters, embracing new technology and being more disciplined about energy use will require people to change their behaviour. No one really knows whether they are prepared to do so to any significant extent.
Managing the social processes related to the energy transition can be a tough challenge, according to the findings from the R&Dialogue project, which since 2012 has been facilitating “collaborative discussion” in ten European countries with the aim of creating concrete and practical energy solutions. Funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework programme, R&Dialogue has worked with industry, NGOs, academia and public authorities, setting up national “Dialogue Councils” and drawing up “national action plans”, all with the aim of helping forward the energy transition. Last month, the project’s final conference took place in Brussels, at which national action plans and a final vision and action plan for a low-carbon society were presented.
One of the findings of R&Dialogue was that even – or perhaps especially – in regions making good progress towards sustainable energy, the need for dialogue and increased participation is felt strongly. For example, according to the North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) Dialogue Council, “the German energy transition has shown that social change is both the main driver and obstacle for transition. Everyone needs to be part of the transition process. Dialogue and participation are tools to get people engaged and develop the competences necessary to combat climate change.”
In Scotland, significant effort went into engaging citizens in meeting the targets set out in the country’s 2009 Climate Change Act. Scotland has ambitious plans for sustainable energy. The country has an extraordinary natural resource base for renewables by European and even global standards. In addition to an existing installed capacity of 1.3 GW of hydro-electric schemes, Scotland has an estimated potential of 36.5 GW of wind and 7.5 GW of tidal power, 25% of the estimated total capacity for the European Union and up to 14 GW of wave power potential, 10% of EU capacity.
“I think energy democracy is a great idea. It’s the new ‘in’ phrase. And I think it’s right”
Citizen-owned renewables projects have made considerable headway in Scotland. Last month, Energy Minister Fergus Ewing announced that an estimated 508 MW of community and locally owned capacity is now operational in Scotland, already exceeding the 500MW target for 2020.
Emily Creamer, a social science researcher at Edinburgh university who participated in the R&Dialogue dialogue council, says, “When R&Dialogue first started, it was clear that people were suffering from dialogue fatigue and we had to come up with new approaches.” Using ‘design thinking’, R&Dialogue convened a forum consisting of a climate change citizens panel, and a number of ‘second tier’ stakeholders, including representatives from Scottish Water, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and citizen groups working on fuel poverty. This led, among other things, to a ‘low carbon decision-making’ tool on the Scottish Water website.
Paul Davidson, Scottish Water’s Waste Water Energy Improvement Programme Delivery Lead, says, “We have a lot of expertise in our business to come up with ideas on how to make energy savings and these workshops gave visibility on where to find the support and tools to translate energy savings into direct carbon impact.”
Researcher Eugenia Jain notes that “it’s more about having a conversation rather than preaching to people – if you preach you lose most of your audience pretty quickly.” This last aptly points up the difference between traditional consultation and participatory dialogue. Gert-Jan van der Panne, social scientist with R&Dialogue, explains: “A dialogue about a low-carbon society is meant to go beyond existing consultation processes. If done well, dialogue promotes mutual understanding, stimulates practical action and has a measurable influence on policy-making by encouraging convergence at all scales: local, regional, national and European. Local and regional dialogue can then lead to quick implementation of low carbon solutions in a positive atmosphere: increased local acceptance, creative local activities and more economic added-value that stays in the region.”
According to Samuela Vercelli, who worked with the R&Dialogue team in Italy, these kinds of participatory dialogue processes can also change public perception from NIMBY, which Vercelli regards as a “demand for democracy”, to PIMBY (‘please in my backyard’), described by Vercelli as “a response of democracy”.
The new ‘in’ phrase
Earlier this year, I asked Marie Donnelly, director Renewables, Research and Innovation, and Energy Efficiency at DG Energy, European Commission, what she thought of the phrase ‘energy democracy’. Donnelly said, “I think it’s a great idea. It’s the new ‘in’ phrase. And I think it’s right. Take political democracy for example. We all have a vote. Not of all of us chose to use it. It’s the same with energy. We all are energy users. We should have structures and mechanisms that allow them to express their position, for example, like the Citizens’ Energy Forum.”
However, Donnelly went on to say: “Citizens need themselves to be proactive. On the other side, utilities as well as policymakers have to be receptive and therefore we need to have structured interaction with consumers. This can happen through stakeholder groups, consumer groups, or it could be local development groups. These dialogues have to be an intrinsic part of the way we do business.”
Their vision is of a decentralised energy system with an active role for citizens, and an evolving business model for suppliers, where energy companies cooperate with local residents, who have the possibility of becoming shareholders in new developments
Donnelly identifies four development stages of energy citizenship: starting with information, increased awareness, empowerment to make choices, and finally the rise of the ‘prosumer’. “At a point in time, if you want an efficient energy system, energy citizens must collaborate. Energy transition and energy democracy – it can only happen at the local level.”
Alexandre Paquot, Head of Unit at the European Commission’s DG Climate, presented a similar message at the R&Dialogue final conference on 18 November. He said that a successful transition would be ‘citizen-centred’ and socially fair, and that the Energy Union should be laying the foundations of a robust governance system.
Another current European-level initiative to increase public participation in the energy transition, in addition to R&Dialogue, is the European Economic and Social Committee’s plan for a European Energy Dialogue. This plan is meant to enable all stakeholders to understand energy challenges and the related trade-offs, take individual action and contribute to energy policy choices whilst taking account of the bigger picture of pan-EU challenges and possible solutions.
Launched on 18 November 2015 in parallel with the final conference of the R&Dialogue project, E-TRACK of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre is yet another energy dialogue process underway in Europe. Its objective is to become a central point of reference for monitoring, disseminating and sharing information on good practices of public participation in energy policy implementation across the EU. At the launch of E-TRACK on 18 November, the focus of discussion was on how to engage with the public on the contentious issue of nuclear waste disposal.
According to the final report, R&Dialogue’s participants see a low-carbon Europe in 2050 as both necessary and achievable. Their vision is of a decentralised energy system with an active role for citizens, and an evolving business model for suppliers, where energy companies cooperate with local residents, who have the possibility of becoming shareholders in new developments. National and European governments coordinate inclusive policy processes, with climate Ombudsmen keeping track of progress.
Building trust through dialogue should underpin this vision. “Dialogue offers the opportunity of a participative democracy where citizens take active part in the discussions and shape the energy transition in their neighbourhoods and their countries”, says Van der Panne. “Low-carbon solutions will be successful when the affected people are involved in the design of these solutions.”
In other words, the Energy Union and energy transition will require “energy democracy”, in this view. It will be interesting to see what will have come of this 30 years from now.
Main recommendations from the R&Dialogue project:
- establishment of more long term multi-stakeholder dialogue spaces
- more research funds for experimenting with innovative dialogue formats
- allocate more EU funds to the roll-out of already existing low-carbon technologies and solutions
- establishment of fast-track EU research funds for urgent research and innovation needs
- greater involvement of civil society and industry in design of programmes
Although R&Dialogue has ended, the Portuguese and Czech national Councils intend to prolong their cooperation. In addition, the overall learnings from the project will feed into E-TRACK and the European Energy Dialogues.