“The civic energy movement doesn’t depend on a technological breakthrough”

Gerard McGovern is Researcher and Project Coordinator at the COAST Centre for Environment and Sustainability Research, University of Oldenburg, and takes care of the initiative “COBEN – Delivering the Benefits of Civic Energy“. He will represent COBEN at the Regional Energy System Leadership Expo in Lutherstadt Wittenberg on April 11th (apply now and join for free!). In Part 1 of our interview, McGovern told us what civic energy means and why traditional energy suppliers will be forced to cooperate with civic communities.


Mr McGovern, experts say civic energy is becoming the key driver of the transition towards renewable energy. Why?
In 2015, the European Economic and Social Committee published a study of the phenomenon of civic energy. This study established the fact that community initiatives are the prime driver of renewables based energy systems and that it has overtaken the big energy utilities in promoting and implementing renewable energy. We at COBEN are developing a process management approach to identify what those drivers actually are. All over northern Europe we have a cluster of individual initiatives which address local conditions and local motivations for getting involved in civic energy. We are convinced that if we deliver an established process, it will be a lot easier for other communities who haven’t pioneered the transition to civic energy, to profit from the community benefits in store. A process framework makes it easier to transfer good practice from one community to another.


What is COBEN actually doing to achieve this goal?
The motivations are different from location to location and they depend on different legal frameworks. There are only two countries in Europe that have a civic energy policy: Denmark and Scotland. All other countries have to wait for new European legislation. Nevertheless, COBEN supports projects on a regional level to implement civic energy initiatives. An important point is that the main goal is not always climate protection at first sight. We sell civic energy propositions to communities and also to community stakeholders. We translate civic energy propositions into real and tangible community benefits.


We are talking about civic energy, but what exactly is civic energy? Can you give us a few examples?
We are active in six countries: Norway, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. In Germany, we have a partnership operating in Osnabrück. Their focus is not on producing new heat or developing new heat resources. Instead, our partners developed a heat map of the whole district and identified the hotspots where you find an abundance of residual heat and those areas where there is a need for a sustainable heating infrastructure. The project is currently building a number of networks to supply local housing with the surplus heat of companies, industrial sites or small-medium-size enterprises. One example involves using the heat from a manufacturing installation like a bakery to heat the surrounding village homes. Another example looks into heating a furniture store from local resources. So the focus is on getting these people together and developing a technically feasible proposition.


What is the role of COBEN in this project?
There are a lot of economic and technical aspects to civic energy projecting. COBEN focusses on quite a range of different sectors and different technologies, but technology is not the most important factor. Why? Because the civic energy movement is not really dependent on a technological breakthrough. We don’t have to reinvent heating technology or electricity. It’s a question of who owns it, who runs it and who profits from it. That means that we are trying to help the communities to put themselves on a level playing field with the old energy regime.


How does the traditional energy sector react to your plan of giving the power of energy back to the people? Are they afraid of losing their power?
It depends on how willing they are to cooperate. I think one of the most conspicuous examples is located in Belgium, where we have the traditional energy companies running the show. But the community is striving for a 35 percent share in a district heating network. The municipality wants to act as a shareholder and be involved in decision making. If the mobilization of community stakeholders, that means the customers of the big utilities, becomes so strong in the community, involving schools, kindergarten and so on – then the utilities have no choice and will start to cooperate with their customers. It all depends on the strength of the local initiative and so I am quite optimistic that the big utilities will adapt – because they have no other long-term option.

Read more about McGovern’s initiative in the upcoming Part 2 of our interview! And do not miss the Regional Energy System Leadership Expo in Lutherstadt Wittenberg. It’s a must-visit for everyone interested in a decentralized energy future.

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