Power to the people!

Community power is the future! That’s at least our conclusion after an intensive year of working on energy issues and engaging with EU citizens. In a final expert debate that idea was confirmed but on the path towards it there are still many obstacles to overcome.

The past year Counter Balance has created 9 different factsheets discussing myths and facts on energy issues such as shale gas, energy infrastructure, renewable energy, and many more. We have engaged with citizens through trainings all over Europe and we asked them to picture Europe’s energy future. In addition, we campaigned for the adoption of sustainable energy policies by Europe’s public banks with an encouraging success. If one thing became clear, it is that we urgently need to move beyond the era of fossil fuels and radically opt for sustainable and democratic energy solutions. The popular support for such a change is massive.

If you ask EU citizens, community power is the future. It’s a people centred solution to challenges such as climate change, energy poverty, energy security and more. Although numerous local groups have taken it forward and new energy co-operatives are taking off every day in Europe, community power hasn’t received the political support it deserves and still faces major obstacles. Discussing its potential and setting it high on the political agenda seemed the best way to conclude a year of intense engagement by Counter Balance and its member with EU citizens.

We joined forces with Friends of the Earth Europe to bring together people making community power happen today, both policy makers and campaigners. The result was “Power to the people – the potential of community-driven energy projects”.

We heard inspiring stories from the ground. John Vandaele told us about Energent, an energy co-operative which will be launched on 10 December in Gent (Belgium) and the support it received from the city council and local cultural organisations to come to life.

Carola Ensslen wants to buy back the Hamburg energy grid to make it more democratically managed and prioritise sustainable energy. Energienetz Hamburg, the cooperative behind this ambitious project, managed to fundraise EUR 50 million already but contrary to the situation in Gent they are facing a fierce opposition from local politicians. In Germany the re-municipalisation of energy networks is on the agenda (cf the referendum in Berlin) and energy cooperatives are booming: their number multiplied by 7 in 5 years time. In 2011 there were 586 of them compared to only 86 in 2006.

Sukhdev Johal highlighted the possibilities of reclaiming public power over local infrastructure and to make it operate in the community’s interest and shared his experience from Enfield (pdf). In this London borough, a forward looking project of engaging with what’s left in the “foundational economy” of mundane public and private activities is currently put in practice. What these stories showed us is that community power is not a utopia but that it is actually happening now.

Following those enlightening presentations, Magda Stoczkiewicz (Friends of the Earth Europe), Ivo Schmidt (DG Energy), Dirk Knapen (REScoop) and Claude Turmes (Green MEP) exchanged ideas and engaged with the audience in an animated debated under the professional guidance of Méabh McMahon.

The potential of community power was endorsed by the different speakers but while Knapen, Turmes and Stoczkiewicz agreed that  stronger and more concrete political support is needed, the European Commission does not wish to differentiate between big players and citizens’ initiatives. “Guaranteeing a low price by opening the market and creating a level playing field should be our main objective”, said Schmidt.

“The first step to a level playing field would be to scrap all the subsidies to the energy sector because currently fossil fuel providers mostly benefit from subsidies”, Knapen replied. “Moreover I believe that community power projects deserve some additional public support because they are an investment in the future.”

“Well set up feed in tariffs are the kind of support measure that can promote the democratisation of the energy system, but big energy companies resist those mechanisms”, Turmes said. “Community power projects have the potential to undermine the power of the big players and it makes them nervous. We see this in Germany where the Energiewende is a big success.”

Stoczkiewicz stressed the need to spread that message beyond the German borders. Friends of the Earth Europe is currently running a campaign to promote community driven energy projects throughout Europe. “Community power is happening now but to really make a change we need much more people joining in.”

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