To build a resilient energy future, we need more people who understand how easy it could be.
The Community Energy Lowdown
It’s a growing movement with a long history in Europe, where citizens produce and control their own renewable energy and its profits. Community energy is a simple solution for the multiple challenges that societies face today—economic, social and environmental—because it puts power, money and decision-making back at the local level and into the hands of regular people, like you and me.
Like many ideas that benefit working people, the community-energy movement has been stymied by big businesses, the extractive industry and government legislation. Because when we take power, they lose it. Some may call community energy revolutionary, but it is a practical solution with a very basic concept—that the people in a community work together to make, use and benefit from renewable electricity. Just like buying goods locally instead of from a supermarket chain, these projects keep money and jobs at home. The only difference is that every single member of an energy cooperative is involved and benefits.
Everyone can participate. That’s the beauty of community energy. Regardless of your political leanings, age, vocation, financial standing or current knowledge about it, every individual contributes, has a voice and benefits. Each person can find their own angle for involvement, whether that’s environmental, social or economic, and there are multiple ways to get involved.
There is huge potential.
In Europe, it is projected that by 2050, community energy could generate 45 percent of the EU’s energy demand. As these projects increase, the demand for energy from non-renewable sources will decrease, which will cause huge shifts in who controls power and how people think about where their energy comes from.
Empowerment of the people is another promising component of the movement. Personal responsibility, self-determination and having a say in what is happening around you—these are all key elements of our democratic societies and something that community energy fosters. In this way, community energy could help solidify a future that’s fair and where all citizens can participate.
We believe community energy is a critical climate-change solution, and we are committed to directly supporting its growth in Europe. A majority of the power we use comes from high-quality renewable-energy providers, and we are currently expanding our direct support for community energy by purchasing power from local projects in Italy, Germany, Ireland and France. In Amsterdam, at our EU headquarters, we’re investing in the ownership of solar panels with community-solar schemes from Ecostroom. Our investment in the first half of 2021 will help them expand community-energy projects in the Netherlands.
How It Works
A community establishes a cooperative, donates time, works with the local municipality and, ultimately, finds participants. Then they co-invest in installing a renewable power system (preferably solar or wind) and sell the energy back to the national grid. These cooperatives can be non-profit or for-profit systems, where investors recover a return on their investments and the surplus is re-infused into the community.
These projects provide economic resilience and community cohesion. It’s a way for many of us to be connected to choices that will shape and define the places we live and the health of our planet. It allows us to develop positive relationships with our neighbors and the land we live on and secure a more financially stable future. Some communities have used their profits to install electric-bike powering stations or to build energy-efficient town halls. Your community will decide what’s needed to improve living conditions for all.
It’s great that you already are convinced of the necessity for renewables, but if you are paying a large energy company for that power, your money is immediately leaving your pocket and town. When you are part of a community-energy project, you are investing in and owning a share of the expansion of renewable energy. The power, and money, is yours—now and into the future.
Some larger cooperatives, like Som Energia in Spain, buy and sell power from other community-energy projects to its members. This gives them time to fund and build their own renewable energy systems, while also providing power for thousands of people who want to support clean, community-generated electricity but don’t yet have a local source. For many smaller cooperatives, this is not possible. In some countries, you can find traditional energy companies that purchase from a collection of community-energy projects and provide interested customers with clean, local power.
A small number of renewable-energy communities do include hydropower. While we respect the decisions these communities make, at Patagonia, we have a history of exposing the harm that hydropower brings to communities, species and the planet. Our position is clear: All dams are dirty. Across the globe, dams have damaged riverine ecosystems and displaced communities, and they are contributing to climate change. They disrupt river flows, degrade water quality and damage wildlife habitat. For years we have fought for the dismantling of dams and oppose their construction.
It is our hope that through education and communication, hydropower will be replaced by cleaner energy solutions, such as solar and wind, for all community-energy projects across Europe.
Why It’s Important
The predominant model of big energy companies and fossil fuel production must be changed in order to limit climate change to 1.5°C—the temperature increase threshold established by scientists to mitigate severe impacts of climate change. Community energy offers a widespread solution that will increase the demand and use of cleaner, more sustainable energy production and move away from coal,gas, nuclear power and other harmful types of energy.
Also, owning our energy puts us in direct connection to how much we’re using. Citizens of community-energy projects tend to be more conscious of their energy consumption and make habits to reduce usage.
Imagine this...Your community produces power and earns profits from what is sold to the energy grid. With these profits, you and your neighbors ask, “What should we do for our town?” You could use those profits to reduce energy bills for your cooperative members, especially those living in energy poverty. Or you could decide to remodel the local town hall or put an electric car-sharing system in place. Imagine having the power to help shape and improve the place you live.
The current, monopolist-owned, extractive energy system has contributed to the climate crisis. Traditionally, big energy companies have taken money from local communities and placed it in the hands of external investors—all while endangering people and the planet for the sake of keeping profits. Community energy offers a clean and viable path forward.
In a democratic and capitalist system, one of the big questions is, who owns what? Typically, the power lies with those who own the most—and our money flies into their hands. Instead, community energy spreads the ownership of power into the hands of many, which helps foster a democratic ideal. This stimulates employment in our communities and boosts local economies with money that would otherwise flow to big energy businesses.
Owning our energy also helps foster social acceptance for renewable power. When a wind turbine or solar panels are yours, you believe in them. You become actively engaged in the renewable energy future, instead of passively receiving power to light and heat your home.
How to Get Involved
In many countries such as Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK, community-energy projects are common.
Find a local project in your region.
If a community energy project does not exist in your region, there are other options to get involved.
REscoop.eu and Friends of the Earth have put together a handy little booklet that serves up plans and exact steps for starting your own project, too.
Otherwise, find your region to learn about establishing a new cooperative in your area.
Becoming a member of a local energy community is the best way to invest your money in a project. Find an energy community near you.
If it’s available in your region, start by switching your electricity provider to one that is sourcing from a community-energy project. In many countries, local energy communities collectively sell power to customers across the country. In Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, you can support community-energy expansion by purchasing your power from a local cooperative.
You can also take action by showing support for community energy in Europe.
The importance of legislation is different in countries across Europe. Currently, the EU legislation for community energy is quite progressive, but the responsibility for those policies is left to each nation. For many EU countries, this is the moment to make community energy a reality. Each nation’s government needs to decide to support and progress their community-energy potential, and that’s where advocacy efforts in your region are critical.