Definition and Scope
The term community energy is applied to a wide range of initiatives, encompassing various different technologies, multiple types of organisation and varying degrees and forms of community involvement. Examples of community energy initiatives exist associated with ecovillages, apartment buildings, social support organisations, cooperatives, transition towns, informal associations, schools and even local governments.
Various terms may be used more or less interchangeable with "community energy", for example "community renewable energy", “renewable energy communities", “community-based renewable energy initiatives" or even "civic energy communities".
In the context of social innovation and sustainability transitions research, community energy initiatives are an example of a grassroots innovation, aiming to create more sustainable and inclusive energy systems. However the role of these community-led innovations in influencing the energy transition is still not well understood. Studies by Seyfang and colleagues drawing on Strategic Niche Management suggest that community energy is an emerging niche.
Motivation and Nature
Recent studies have attempted to better understand what characterizes a community energy. According to Brummer and colleagues, communities decide to engage in energy-related activities for diverse and often multiple reasons. This results in a wide variety of activities and projects that contribute to the plurality of the term “community energy”.
The motivation for setting up a community energy initiative could be financial, a wish for greater levels of self-determination and independence (perhaps relating to an interest in energy sovereignty) or concerns over climate change and other environmental impacts of conventional energy production. However, engaging in community energy projects can have effects not anticipated by their founders. These communities may be playing an increasingly important role for society by raising awareness about renewable energy, contributing to a wider acceptance for the energy transition or raising levels of social capital, self-understanding and capacity for collective action within a community.
Community energy initiatives are often suggested to be more ecological and democratic, providing a nature-based solution as opposed to the traditional centralized energy system. However, there are conflicting arguments as to whether energy communities could help tackle issues such as energy poverty. In addition, there are still significant technological, legal, economic and financial barriers to the further development of these communities.
Community energy initiatives are closely connected with decentralized, renewable energy generation. As noted by Brummer, whatever the renewable energy source used, these forms of energy generation can be set up by local communities rather than by large utility companies. This a transformative characteristic for community energy communities, since they not only challenge but may fundamentally alter the incumbent structural and functional features of the energy system. In many countries (such as Germany, where there are a significant number of community energy initiatives), support schemes play a crucial role in deciding whether community energy will be economically feasible.
Renewable Energy Communities (EU Definition)
In the context of EU energy transition policies, (including the Winter Package, the 2016 renewable energy directive) policy support for community energy initiatives has increased considerably and should continue to increase. The European Commission now uses the term Renewable Energy Community (REC) and has given it a legal definition.
Article 22 of the proposed Recast renewable energy directive sets forth new provisions concerning RECs to empower them to participate in the market. It defines RECs as entities through which citizens and/or local authorities own or participate in the production and/or use of renewable energy. A REC shall be an SME or a not-for-profit organization whose shareholders or members cooperate in the generation, distribution, storage or supply of energy from renewable energy source, fulfilling at least four of the following five criteria:
- shareholders or members are natural persons, local authorities, including municipalities, or SMEs operating in the fields or renewable energy;
- at least 51% of the shareholders or members with voting rights of the entity are natural persons;
- at least 51% of the shares or participation on rights of the entity are owned by local members, i.e. representatives of local public and local private socio-economic interests or citizen having a direct interest in the community activity and its impacts
- at least 51% of the seats in the board of directors or managing bodies of the entity are reserved to local members, i.e. representatives of local public and local private socioeconomic interests or citizens having a direct interest in the community activity and its impacts
- the community has not installed more than 18 MW of renewable capacity for electricity, heating and cooling and transport as a yearly average in the previous five years
The EU’s legal definition does not, however, fully encompass the social innovation dimension of community energy.
An alternative definition is:
[C]ommunity energy systems refer to electricity and/or heat production on a small, local scale that may be governed by or for local people or otherwise be capable of providing them with direct beneficial outcomes.
In some countries (such as Portugal), the national legal framework still does not allow for the development of RECs as defined by the EU. There are nonetheless, community energy initiatives (such as the energy project of Tamera Ecovillage).
RECs are commonly linked to prosumers:
Local communities in both developing and developed countries are being transformed by challenging the traditional identity as passive consumers to active prosumers who both consume and produce. Such initiatives, aside from their potential to help achieve carbon reduction goals, can lead to job creation and regeneration of local economies, and help build consumer engagement in the energy transition. When local communities aim to maximise self-reliance in energy generation and/or become carbon neutral in energy, this requires a transformation in the energy system - from centralised to decentralised. This both infrastructural and institutional changes, and restructuring in many different factors (e.g. building design and construction, regulation), the ramifications of which are complex.
Koirala et al., additionally, define a Prosumer Community Groups as:
A network of prosumers having relatively similar energy sharing behaviour and interests, which try to pursue a mutual goal and jointly compete in the energy market. (…) These groups virtually interconnect prosumers and may not necessarily be connected technically.
REScoop is an example of this type of network.
Scope and potential of community energy in Europe
As of late 2017, REScoop claimed on its website to represent 1500 member co-ops involving over 1,000,000 citizens. According to figures provided by RESCoop in 2017: • 3,000 REScoops are active in Europe, around half of these being represented in REScoop.eu
- RESCopp members have jointly invested 2 billion euro in installing renewable energy generation capacity.
- They have a joint production capacity of about 1,250 MW, producing 1,500 million kWh a year.
- They account for 1,100 employees and have an annual turnover of 750 million euro.
A report on energy citizens from CE Delft, based on 2015 data, estimates that by 2050, 83 percent of homes in the EU’s (around 187 million households) could potentially become energy citizens and contribute to renewable energy production, demand response and/or energy storage. Roughly fifty per cent of households (around 113 million) may have the potential to produce energy; even more could provide demand flexibility through use of electric vehicles, smart e-boilers or stationary batteries. By 2050, 115 million EU households will have electric vehicles, 70 million may have smart electric boilers, 60 million may have rooftop solar PV and 42 million may have stationary batteries. Another 64 million households could participate in renewable energy production through energy collectives.
Examples of Renewable Energy Communities in Europe
Gelders Energie Akkoord (GEA): collaboration among local and regional industry, governments and NGOs in the province of Gelderland, wherein a total of 190 parties are committing to an energy neutral province in 2050. This facilitates a co-creative process wherein initiatives, players and energy are sought and found in society
Energiegenossenschaft Starkenburg: A regenerative energy cooperative in the region of Starkenburg, especially for its citizens. Different kinds of energy systems that are environment-friendly
Comunita Cooperativa Melpignano: Community association for purchase, production and sale of solar photovoltaic energy
Chester Community Energy: Community benefit society, solar power, share issue on municipal building. All directors are volunteers. Surplus is reinvested into the community and environmental projects.
Combrailles Durables: This cooperative is setting up its own production equipment (a PV central for instance in 2010) and rooftop PV, all locally. Members can buy clean eenrgy and/or become producers.
Somenergia: Large RES energy prosumer and consumer cooperative, which functions through local groups in several provinces
Zelena: helps citizens develop, invest and use renewable energy sources. It encourages the development of social entrepreneurship in energy, and the development of local communities. It is helping develop energy cooperatives.
- Seyfang, G., Hielscher, S., Hargreaves, T., Martiskainen, M., & Smith, A. (2014). A grassroots sustainable energy niche? Reflections on community energy in the UK. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 13, 21–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2014.04.004
- Brummer, V. (2018). Community energy – benefits and barriers: A comparative literature review of Community Energy in the UK, Germany and the USA, the benefits it provides for society and the barriers it faces. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 94, 187-196.
- Foulds, C and Robinson. R. (eds.), 2018. Advancing Energy Policy. London: Palgrave Macmillan https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-99097-2
- Hancher, L., Winters, B.M., 2017. The EU WInter Package. Briefing Paper.
- Koirala, B. P., Koliou, E., Friege, J., Hakvoort, R. A., & Herder, P. M. 2016. Energetic communities for community energy: A review of key issues and trends shaping integrated community energy systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 56(2016), 722–744. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2015.11.080
- https://www.rescoop.eu/federation. Accessed Feb 12th 2019.
- Kampman, B., Blommerde, J., Afman, M., 2016. The potential of energy citizens in the European Union. CE Delft.
Seyfang, G., & Haxeltine, A. (2012). Growing Grassroots Innovations: Exploring the Role of Community-Based Initiatives in Governing Sustainable Energy Transitions. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30(3), 381–400. https://doi.org/10.1068/c10222
See description on chapter "Grassroots environmentalism and low carbon cities" 
- TRANSIT material on INFORSE
- Kunze, C., Becker, S., 2015. Collective ownership in renewable energy and opportunities for sustainable degrowth. Sustainability Science 10, 425–437. *https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0301-0 and related
- Seyfang and Smith on CE in UK
- Lo, K., 2017. Grassroots environmentalism and low carbon cities, in: Creating Low Carbon Cities. Springer.