Economic, political, and ecological concerns are driving the creation of renewable energy communities in Central Eastern Europe, but more needs to be done to facilitate these local efforts to democratize energy systems.
Skyrocketing energy costs, growing awareness of the climate crisis, and the dawning understanding, courtesy of Russia’s war in Ukraine, that fossil fuel dependence poses a threat to democratic freedom, are all driving a dogged determination to establish renewable energy communities (REC) in the region, Climate Action Network-Europe says a recent blog post. These citizen-led efforts are intended to hand control over the energy supply to the community, thus providing maximum “environmental, economic and/or social community benefits to its members or shareholders, or to the local areas where it operates, rather than to generate financial profits.”
Bulgaria’s first renewable energy community, Izgrei Bg, was created “with this goal in mind,” writes CAN Europe. “Energy communities will be a democratic solution to our energy, poverty, and social problems for the coming decades,” said Izgrei Bg member Mihail Georgiev. “For us, it was important to start as the energy market in Bulgaria is centralized and just a handful of people control vital resources.” (Though renewable energy communities are not entirely bastions of democracy—in practice, many have run into issues of equity).
The desire for energy independence and self-sufficiency was also a factor in the founding of Poland’s Sloneczny Serock cooperative, though the citizens who founded the 30-member cooperative—one of Poland’s first—were primarily motivated by rising energy prices.
For the members of Romania’s Cooperativa de Energie, the connection between energy independence and political agency was the galvanizing idea. “We believe democracy is key to the renewable energy market, and decentralization gives everyone the chance to pitch in and contribute to a more sustainable world,” Cooperativa member Adrian Munteanu told CAN-Europe.
CAN-Europe cites Hungary’s Community Energy Service Company (CESCO) as an example of a renewable energy community formed for the common good. The organization “uses revenue generated from their solar PV installations to provide energy efficiency advisory services,” and created a “community energy efficiency fund” which “will allow tenants within the energy community to reduce the heating costs for local buildings.”
Then there are the environmental benefits of renewable energy communities. “Powering and heating homes and businesses through the use of renewable energy, while funding programs that look to improve energy savings in the community, can have a large impact on mitigating the climate crisis,” the blog post notes.
But renewable energy communities face a number of challenges. CAN-Europe points to limited access to finance, a dearth of local technical expertise, and a “discouraging” lack of strategic thinking on the part of national governments that finds newbie energy communities facing “overburdensome and restrictive regulation in the form of strict licensing requirements, connection rules, and tariffs”. All of those factors make the establishment of renewable energy communities something of an uphill battle.
“On top of this, a lack of public awareness, education, and information around what energy communities are and their benefits can result in citizens not being empowered to take on local energy initiatives,” CAN-Europe writes.