Part 2: „The idea of independence appeals to a lot of people“

In Part 1 of our interview, Gerard McGovern told us about his initiative „COBEN – Delivering the Benefits of Civic Energy“. In the second part, McGovern explains why a European legislation for civic energy is so important and what’s the secret of COBEN in convincing people to join their initiative – it’s primarily not because of climate protection.


Mr McGovern, which role does the national – or the European – government play in civic energy?
At national level there are only two governments in Europe with a civic energy policy: Denmark and Scotland. In Germany, for example, this is currently not a policy issue. We do not know what the new German government plans to do, but at least the old government was more concerned with protecting the interests of the dying energy regime represented by RWE, E.ON & Co. and their monopoly contracts. This stance is partly due to the shareholder roles played by municipalities and the dependency of community budgets on the old energy regime especially in North Rhine-Westphalia.


Do you think that might change within the next years?
I think Germany needs a legal turnaround to promote civic energy on a meaningful scale, but I do not expect this to happen within the next five years. I am more optimistic with regard to the reform of the European energy regulations and particular the Commission’s „Clean Energy for All Europeans“ package. This package includes all of the renewables energy directives which are currently being redrafted. One legal breakthrough has been announced, but not yet ratified: local energy initiatives will be granted a strengthened status, that entitles local energy communities to compete with the established energy regime on an equal footing. Right now, you have to ask the monopolist grid operator if you can generate and distribute local energy. This development at European level puts local energy initiatives on the same footing as the incumbent energy providers. It won’t happen overnight, but the new European legislation is expected to come into force in 2021.


Let’s go back to the people: How do they think about the idea of civic energy?
Of course the local stakeholders that we have mobilised in the different locations within the COBEN project all have diverse motivations. Some find it politically attractive not to be dependent on a multinational corporation in order to be able to heat their homes. It may not be that much cheaper, but this idea of independence and an autark energy structure appeals to a lot of people.


How do you treat people who aren’t convinced yet to participate in your projects?
If some people are not politically or ecologically motivated, we do not try to teach them climate protection, but we try to break down the climate protection proposition into real benefits for themselves as citizens. For example, in Denmark the municipality of Ringkøbing-Skjern as part of an extensive project addresses holiday home rental organisations and offers attractive renewable energy packages for thousands of Danish holiday homes by linking them to the community energy system. The outcome might not necessarily be perceived as an environmental benefit, but, nevertheless, making holiday homes more sustainable and attractive offers long-term advantages for the community.


What common challenges do you need to overcome at the locations where COBEN is active?
The basic challenge – which is also the decisive success factor – is selling this civic energy proposition to community stakeholders. COBEN goes a stage further than just propagating an idea. In each project region we mobilize and enroll the individual stakeholders who are needed to make the project viable. This inevitably involves lots of meetings, lots of information exchange, lots of questions and addressing individual needs and concerns.


So the challenges and any obstacles depend on the location of your partner initiatives?
Yes, definitely. But nevertheless, we use what we have learned from all these different locations to develop a civic energy process which is framed as a continuous improvement process. The specific targets depend on the location, but the process of mastering the key process assignments are part of a common procedure. We are trying to streamline and establish this process so that it becomes easier for later adopters to transfer the results that were achieved elsewhere. This will make it much easier for local decision-makers to sell the proposition and implement it with fewer risks than the pioneering communities experienced. So our ambition is to upgrade civic energy from a niche phenomenon to mainstream.


You are representing the COBEN project at the upcoming Regional Energy Systems Leadership Expo. What do you expect from the Expo?
I simply hope to learn from others and gain information of how parallel organisations and initiatives work. And at the same time, I’ll provide an input and I hope the discussion that follows will assist us in improving our civic energy procedure by making it more directed to the specific needs of the communities that are not yet involved. So, I’m doubly motivated. I am curious as to what is happening elsewhere and at the same time I will use it as a platform to test whether the COBEN recipe can be extended beyond the project partnership.


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, 2018. Read more about the projects of the COBEN initiatives in Part 3!

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