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Inside Europe’s people-powered green transition

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Inside Europe’s people-powered green transition

A quantitative analysis of citizen-led sustainable energy initiatives reveals surprising heft
March 7, 2023

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More than two million people have contributed to citizen-led green energy initiatives in Europe since the year 2000, according to a new study. The analysis represents the first large-scale and systematic attempt to quantify the scope and impact of such citizen-led efforts.

“Our data show that the collective engagement of citizens in the energy transition is a long-term movement and their impact has been overlooked,” says study team member Valeria Jana Schwanitz, an energy economist at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Sogndal.

Schwanitz and her colleagues spent four years painstakingly collecting data on the citizen-led energy initiatives across 30 European countries. “When we started our project, we did not know what kind of statistical evidence for citizen contribution we would find because research has been dominated by case studies,” Schwanitz says. “But some say only what is counted, counts, which is why we started counting initiatives, projects, fields of engagement, and money invested.”

An estimated 10,540 citizen-led green energy initiatives and 22,830 projects involving 2,010,600 people with an installed renewable capacity of 7.2-9.9 gigawatts and representing financial investments of 6.2-11.3 billion Euros have taken place over the past two decades, the researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports. Because of the lack of comprehensive data, the authors say, these estimates are likely to be conservative.

The initiatives range from an Italian community that installed wind turbines and solar panels on public buildings to provide free-of-charge electricity, to a Lithuanian housing association in an apartment building that installed a geothermal heating system, to a consumer cooperative in Spain with a fleet of electric cars.

“Collecting evidence on so many initiatives across Europe has shed light on many surprises,” says study team member Heather Arghandeh Paudler, a researcher at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. “For example, kids are the founders of a cooperative in Belgium, and they install wind farms and educate other kids. Or in France, a local initiative even dares what for-profit enterprises do not: they are running a local train to improve rural transport.”

The researchers estimate the overall amount of renewable energy produced through citizen-led energy projects is sufficient to meet the annual energy use of all those involved: in essence, participants have achieved renewable-energy self-sufficiency, at least at an aggregate level.

 

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Still, only a tiny fraction of the population is involved in citizen-led green energy projects. And, with the exception of district heating in Denmark, these projects represent only a small proportion of the renewable energy capacity in a given country. Citizen-led projects represent about 1% of the total financial investments in renewable energy in Europe in the last decade.

“Our data also show that governmental support—be it financial, administrative, or legislative—is essential for citizen-led projects to thrive,” says Paudler. Citizen initiatives can’t, at least in the current market and policy environment, replace commercial or government action in the green energy transition.

“The introduction of the new directives of the European Union in support of individual and collective prosumers is promising,” Schwanitz says. “It will not only help better accounting, but also initiate learning across countries.”

Most of the renewable-energy systems installed in citizen-led projects are solar panels, a good fit for such projects because they are small, modular, and relatively easy for people without a technical background in energy systems to deploy. But citizen-led projects have also involved onshore wind turbines, biomass-based heat, and hydropower, and such initiatives are now taking on projects such as energy storage and EV charging stations.

The researchers have also produced an animated documentary that lays out a potential vision for citizen-led energy projects.

Source: Schwanitz V.J. et al.Statistical evidence for the contribution of citizen-led initiatives and projects to the energy transition in Europe.” Scientific Reports 2023.

Image: Fabian Sommer/dpa/Alamy Live News.

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