SUPER-i Project

Decentralisation, sustainability and energy democratisation. The untapped potential of citizen-led initiatives

by Alasdair Sandford The sun’s rays beat down on more than 900 solar panels in a field at Stymfalia, the mountains of the Pelopponese peninsula rising above them. The Hyperion solar farm, about 100 kilometres west of Athens, is one of dozens of cooperative projects to have sprung up in Greece in recent years. The 500-kilowatt park has been connected to the country’s electricity grid since February, and began generating power for the cooperative’s 130 members the following month. “It’s definitely been widely perceived by people as a success story… We have inspired other energy communities in Greece and Europe, especially Eastern Europe,” says Chris Vrettos, one of the cooperative’s founders. In 2018 the government acted to make projects such as Hyperion possible, implementing EU legislation designed to set up energy communities – officially recognised, collectively owned and managed projects that contribute to the clean energy transition. “People came together and they said, ‘ok, we’ve been preaching energy democracy for years, how can we put it into action by really creating an energy community now that we have the law? How can they get together, pool their money and create a collective solar park for collective self-consumption?’” Vrettos explains. “Direct citizen ownership of renewable energy projects is an essential safeguard for ensuring social acceptance and accelerating the transition. The potential of community energy is enormous: by 2050, around 45 % of renewable energy production in the EU could come from citizens,” says Stavroula Pappa, policy advisor for REScoop, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives. Its “transposition tracker” monitors the progress of EU countries in implementing the EU directives that paved the way for energy communities. “Several Member States have made considerable progress in transposing these provisions into national legislation, including Italy, Belgium and Denmark. However, most Member States have yet to develop an enabling framework allowing energy communities to participate in the market without discrimination compared to other market actors,” Pappa adds. “In several countries energy communities are still a new concept and citizens do not necessarily know that they have the opportunity and established right under EU law to set up their own initiatives.” Dr. Paola Zerilli, Associate Professor Economics Department University of York, Scientific Coordinator EC funded the EU-funded SUPER-i and SUPERSHINE projects – which aim to enhance energy efficiency and reduce energy poverty via renovations in social housing – says she is aware of cases where people have run into obstacles trying to set up energy communities, despite supportive legislation at EU level. As project coordinator for SUPER-i, her particular focus is on generating investment for refurbishment schemes. Pilot schemes are being set up in Italy, Denmark, Slovenia and Latvia. “The key from my point of view is close collaboration first among partners,” she says, “but also collaboration from the government that needs to be open and flexible to lift any barriers to investment”. “The end product will be a specific plan for each country and for each pilot… and for possible interventions that they could put in place, what will be the consequences in terms of energy savings in terms of lower environmental impact and also decreased energy poverty for the people actually living there, because we have seen more that people just switch off the heating or switch off the air conditioning because they can’t afford it, it’s as simple as that,” Zerilli explains. The Greek government did act to iron out problems as energy communities got up and running. Private investors were prevented from exploiting the system for their own, purely profit-driven motives: Vrettos says in many cases energy companies have falsely claimed to be energy communities. However, a lack of grid capacity has prevented many applicants from being connected, and projects have struggled to see a return on their investments. Hyperion’s journey from drawing board to operational project has been plagued by delays, bureaucracy, internal conflicts and disappointments. Even today, it relies on established electricity suppliers to distribute its solar-generated energy, and to play ball regarding other obligations. “We’re still waiting for the supplier to do the metering in our electricity bills,” says Vrettos. “We’ve seen from other communities that had finished their projects before us that the suppliers were refusing to cooperate although they are legally obliged to do so. For many months, even a year and a half, although we are producing energy and although they are technically legally bound to meter that for us, to credit that, we are still waiting to see this in our electricity bills. So far members are still receiving normal electricity bills. We’re almost there, but not 100%.” The failure of established energy suppliers to meet their obligations regarding energy communities is “not just a Greek problem, it’s all over Europe”, Vrettos adds. For him, the reason is simple: “Because if you have people producing their own energy they’re no longer your customers”. REScoop, he says, intends to pressure countries to use their share of the EU Social Climate Fund – dedicated funding to support vulnerable groups in the green transition – to help energy communities take on the financial risk. The problems experienced by Hyperion and others come despite further EU legislation reinforcing the ability of energy communities to reap the benefits of the electricity they produce. “Citizens no longer need to depend on corporate power for their renewable electricity, heating, or renovations”, says Stavroula Pappa. Electricity market reform, signed off by the European Council in May, sets out to regulate and develop energy sharing, enabling consumers to operate renewable systems collectively and access power at reduced rates. As national rules are established, she adds, “it is important that a level playing field is created so that energy communities can participate in this activity and are not pushed out by increasing penetration of commercial market actors”. “I think the green transition is the perfect opportunity to really decentralise and democratise and bring back into public ownership common goods,” Chris Vrettos says. However, under pressure from their electorates, the commitment of governments has been called into questionand Europe’s political will be further tested following the advances made by the populist right in June’s European elections. This challenging context has prompted some experts to highlight the importance of local, citizen-led initiatives. “We are no longer in a world where local actors are peripheral” in the battle to reach environmental goals, wrote a trio of French scientists in an opinion column in Le Monde in May. They called on governments and the European Union “to take account of this multilateralism and restrict regulation to wide-mesh measures, rules of fair conduct, whose implementation is a matter of confidence as much as of control”. Greece has had some success in its long-term drive to meet climate targets. Greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted, while the country was ranked by consultants EY in 2023 as a top destination for investment in renewables. What Chris Vrettos describes as a “monumental growth” in solar power generation has helped renewable energy’s share of total consumption almost to double over the past decade. However, the same drive has not always been replicated elsewhere. According to a World Bank assessment in 2020 found that many countries were failing to realise their full potential. “I’ve seen in the south of Italy, so many houses could go on without paying any electricity because they could use solar panels. But the problem is that sometimes either there are policy or regulation problems, or that people don’t know how to access this funding. There isn’t enough literacy about this type of technology,” says Paola Zerilli. She calls for more help from governments for transition projects, adding that “also the financial system needs to start waking up and investing more in this type of interventions”. The alternative, she concludes, is stark. “All the negative impacts caused by climate change, are we considering them in the big picture?” she asks, exasperated by what she sees as a resurgence of political short-termism. “Have we forgotten the next flood, the next big storm causing I don’t know what damage and even deaths? Are we considering that?” Photo credits:  Foto di Lio Voo: https://www.pexels.com/it-it/foto/eshelim-solar-power-plant-specchi-13248715/