EU Member States need to phase-out coal and transform their carbon-intensive industries to make Europe climate-neutral. However, these should not be the only goals: transparency and justice must also accompany this path, argue Diana Süsser at IEECP, Serafeim Michas at TEESlab and Ricardo Antonio García Mira at the University of A Coruna. As Member States implement their territorial just transition plans, they must ensure they benefit affected citizens and communities. The authors use simulation models to offer the case study of Megalopolis as an example, the second largest lignite mining and power production centre in Greece. Its planned solar PV parks of 550 MW will feed back into the national grid, and local households will not receive direct renewable supply. Furthermore, for space heating households will receive a new gas boiler for free, which will be fuelled by a new gas distribution network. However, supplying just 5% of the solar power yield to Megalopolis could cover 90% of the city’s electricity needs. And further efficiency and heat pump investment could save households €1,700 per year compared to using natural gas as a heating fuel.
Affected citizens and communities must be at the centre of just energy transitions
To facilitate regional transition processes, countries have prepared their territorial just transition plans (TJTP) to receive money out of the Just Transition Fund. After the European Commission has adopted plans for 26 Member States, the real challenge starts now with their implementation.
Leaving no one behind
A just transition should be people-centred, involving and assisting regional actors in transitioning to a greener and sustainable future to live up to the objective of the European Green Deal to leave no person and no place behind in the climate transition. Specific attention must be paid to vulnerable groups and women.
However, a recent survey by the Just Transition Platform (JTP) Working Group on Horizontal Stakeholder Strategy found that stakeholders struggle to get involved in regional transition processes, and preparations of plans have lacked local-level participation.
One look at the plans shows that some (proposed) projects might be too short-sighted, not rooted in local knowledge and fail to reflect the needs of the affected people and communities sufficiently. So, what needs to be done?
Designing project pipelines that reflect citizens’ needs
Although Member States were obliged to include stakeholders in the preparation of TJTPs, an analysis of the JUSTEM project found that many failed to involve affected citizens and communities in the consultation processes sufficiently.
In some countries, the plans have been developed centrally at national level and thus, not enough attention was given to regional needs and concerns, as well as measures to encounter negative socio-economic impacts of the transition, such as energy poverty. It is time to change this in the implementation phase of plans.
Multiple governance levels must recognise and value the opinions and perspectives of citizens and work together effectively to involve people in the development and implementation of local projects. For this to happen, it requires a new just-transition communication, awareness raising and empowerment to shape regional visions and project pipelines jointly.
Implementing measures that benefit people sustainably
…Case study: Megalopolis
The transition plan for Megalopolis, the second largest lignite mining and power production centre in Greece, seems rather grey than green. This is because households in the region will not benefit from the direct, cheap supply of renewable energy from the planned photovoltaic parks with a total capacity of 550 MW. Instead, all generated energy will be fed to the national grid. In addition, a natural gas distribution network is being built, and all households in Megalopolis will receive a new natural gas boiler for free. However, gas leads to a new fossil fuel lock-in.
An analysis within the TIPPING+ project showed that covering 90% of Megalopolis’ electricity needs with direct solar energy is possible, by using only 5% of the PV-produced energy, if battery storage systems are installed alongside PV. Without storage, it would not be possible to cover more than 40% of demand due to mismatch between generation and demand profiles.
Therefore, with a “green rebranding” based on PV solar panels, battery energy storage systems, heat pumps, and energy efficiency improvements, Megalopolis could remain an energy hub supplying “green” energy and providing in parallel an attractive building stock for new residents.
Empowering citizens to drive transitions
Just transitions do not only lead to technological changes but also change the way our energy systems are governed. The experiences and findings from the ENTRANCES project reveal that renewable energy offers the opportunity to put people at the centre of the energy transition.
For this to happen, the shortcomings in coal-dominated countries must be overcome, as they often lack a regulatory system that enables collective action. For example, an analysis of the regulatory systems of Poland, Romania, Norway and Slovakia revealed a lack of enabling frameworks for collective action, such as energy communities. However, countries such as Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy and the UK are making efforts to involve citizens in the process of decarbonisation and just energy transition.
The general resistance to decentralising power over the energy system makes it difficult to involve citizens and especially energy communities in decision-making. Member States must implement supportive legal frameworks that recognise the role of energy communities in enabling a just energy transition and incentivise investments in renewable energy across the EU.
In conclusion, a just transition means not repeating existing injustices, but instead sufficiently involving affected people and communities in shaping their greener future.
To learn more, join the online debate Accelerating just energy transition(s) in coal and carbon-intensive regions at EUSEW: Thursday 22 June, 14:00-15:30 CEST.
Diana Süsser is a Senior Expert at the Institute for European Energy and Climate Policy (IEECP)
Serafeim Michas is a Research Associate at the Technoeconomics of Energy Systems laboratory (TEESlab) at the University of Piraeus
Ricardo Antonio García Mira is a Professor of Social Psychology, specialising in Environmental Psychology, at the University of A Coruna