Decentralised, Networked, Collaborative: This was the philosophy behind Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V. when it started three years ago. The aim was to meet the demands of the energy transition – the economic, climate policy-related and social requirements – at a regional level and to develop a decentralised energy system (for the German state of Saxony-Anhalt). New business and participation models were also tested in systematic start-up processes to give space to meaningful innovations throughout the experiment. We assisted and supported Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V. for the duration of its project and now, at the end of the project, would like to take some time to reflect upon it. We’re bringing to the table three notions that summarise our findings, starting with the need for widespread, social participation, then moving on to the approach based on the perspective of the consumer, before finally looking at forgotten aspects that can be factored in by a regional energy supply concept.
Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V. was and is an experiment that was created to demonstrate that even failure can be a meaningful result. That means honesty is essential, even when communicating the results. The experiment primarily focused on the participatory design of an innovative project – a regional energy system was to be developed and gradually rolled out. In purely economic terms, the superiority of regional solutions over centralised ones is still yet to be proven beyond doubt. It is questionable whether such proof could finally be produced in a living lab in the first place due to the unique nature of each testing field.
Notion 1: Living labs are suitable as testing fields if participation is taken seriously and not exclusively practised by a few actors.
One word precisely encompasses regionality: participation. When taken in its broadest sense, participation includes political and social involvement, which is easier on a regional level, and economic participation (in terms of a regional value chain with several players in society and in terms of anti-alienation). However, participation that remains on an abstract level is an elite issue. Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V. showed that when it comes to the question of how a regional energy system can be designed, planned and eventually implemented, the only ones involved in finding answers are experts – despite the many offers to participate from others. This is a structural weakness that we recognise from many different participation processes. This form of participation ultimately has little to do with democracy. There is also little to gain from this since regional experts are not much different from national experts. That’s why we need something new, a more radical understanding of participation, and personal involvement is a fundamental prerequisite to this understanding. The majority of people only come into contact with the energy transition at certain points of intersection in their role of consumer.
Notion 2: Those who want a participatory energy transition must look at it from the consumer’s point of view.
Consumers only get actively involved in solutions that deal with issues they understand to be issues. Expert discourse continues to focus on complex and abstract problems. The simultaneous combination of decentralisation and digitalisation makes this new understanding of participation easier to access since energy can be managed by the consumer in every respect. It becomes apparent that this coincidence represents a paradigm shift if you consider how the energy industry in particular has evolved over the years. Anyone who is serious about the energy transition being a joint effort must view this paradigm shift as a design task. It does little to simply talk about participation. Consumers need tangible opportunities to act.
Digitalisation enables the simplification of administrative processes that were previously complex and required several branches of specialist knowledge. This provides consumers with the autonomy to act and empowers them to achieve economic added value through their own actions.
However, the economic benefit is the fundamental prerequisite. The previously passive consumer must be seen as a player in the energy industry. Consequently, a future energy system should also enable anyone to generate, consume and trade energy according to their own preferences.
Notion 3: A regional energy system factors in regionality, the integration of renewable resources and sector coupling – aspects that are forgotten in the current system – and enables economic and social participation.
Regional energy systems based on renewable energies are disruptive and requires a thorough rethinking of how energy is generated, traded and distributed along the three energy sectors of electricity, heating/cooling and mobility. The energy industry model of the regional balancing group developed by Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V., which is fundamentally anchored by regionality, sector coupling and participation, represents an alternative to the current individual systems that are not differentiated by these aspects. You will find more detailed information about how the model works and what it requires here.
The use of digital technologies is the key to implementing a regional balancing group so that energy data is processed efficiently and the complex exchange relationships (especially between the sectors and flexibility options) can be managed. The simplified access of regional energy systems allows the preferences of additional players (for example, prosumers) to be factored in better, thus fulfilling the previously described prerequisite for economically and socially participating players. However, the complexity of these regional energy systems and the overwhelming immaturity in the current system has meant that up until now this potential has not been fully realised. However, the experiences of Energieavantgarde Anhalt e.V. show that the opportunities offered by such a system contain huge potential and can make the energy transition more socially sustainable overall.
The development of a regional energy system can be seen as successful in conceptual terms. Despite the active players’ willingness to take risks, innovate and invest, the implementation was unsuccessful. As it stands, economic and/or regulatory reasons simply make a regional energy system unfeasible and this will not change despite all efforts.
Contact: Patricia Schulz