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Community energy in Europe ‘more diverse’ than in the past 50 years

Renewable energy in Scotland (c) James Hutton Institute
“For social innovation to fulfil its potential to empower citizens in delivering cleaner, fairer, energy systems, the support of governments and energy companies alike is crucial”

European citizen renewable energy projects are more diverse now than at any time in the past 50 years, and they are likely to act as incubators for social innovation in all aspects of energy. However, efforts must be made to ensure the democratization of energy and the genuine empowerment of citizens. Those are some of the findings of a new study on community energy undertaken in the context of an EU-funded research project focussing on social innovation.

The study, carried out by a consortium including the James Hutton Institute together with partners in the UK and Germany, examines evidence from eight European countries and describes key phases of social innovation in community energy. These key phases belong to a landscape of emerging societal responses to global crises and opportunities affecting all aspects of energy, from the oil shocks of the 1970s to the recent Great Recession.

Dr Richard Hewitt, based within the Institute’s Information and Computational Sciences (ICS) group and co-author of the study, said: “Citizen-driven renewable energy projects, commonly known as community energy initiatives, have an important part to play in the worldwide transition to cleaner energy systems. In this study we describe and map community energy projects from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

“We believe it is of great importance to study the development and growth of social innovation in community energy if we are to achieve the transition towards a low carbon economy. Despite cautious expressions of interest in community energy, few European governments actively take steps to ensure meaningful participation of communities in the generation and management of energy systems.

“For social innovation to fulfil its potential to empower citizens in delivering cleaner, fairer, energy systems, the support of governments and energy companies alike is crucial.”     

Dr Rupert Hough, leader of ICS, commented: “Community energy initiatives play an important role in meeting sustainability targets well as contributing to rural regeneration. In delivering such benefits, Richard and colleagues highlight the vital importance of ensuring all members of the community are empowered to access and be involved in these developments.”

Social innovation is a phenomenon that manifests itself in new social relationships and collaborations. It seeks to promote the development and uptake of new services and new fields of activity, such as social entrepreneurship and social enterprises that improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, and is at the heart of Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA), a €5.5m research initiative supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

The paper Social Innovation in Community Energy in Europe: A Review of the Evidence, by Richard J. Hewitt, Nicholas Bradley, Andrea Baggio Compagnucci, Carla Barlagne, Andrzej Ceglarz, Roger Cremades, Margaret McKeen, Ilona M. Otto and Bill Slee, is in the latest issue of Frontiers in Energy Research.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.