The Guest Blog

Guest contribution by Molly Walsh, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

A public consultation on state support for renewable energies closes today. The proposed guidelines Commissioner Almunia’s DG Competition are consulting on have caused consternation in the renewable sector and particularly among citizens and communities involved in running smaller renewables projects.

State Aid guidelines should be a tool to help implement agreed EU energy policy. But this proposal contains remarkably restrictive measures for how member states can support renewable technologies in their own countries. In this way the Commission risks overstepping its mark in shaping national energy policy to the detriment of small-scale citizen-led initiatives. The most worrying aspects of the draft guidelines are that:

  1. Only very small projects (under 1 megawatt) will be able to get direct supports like the feed-in-tariff.
  2. The kind of support to be given will be based on a distinction between ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ technologies – those considered ‘well deployed’ such as wind and solar, will be less eligible for support.
  3. The proposed bidding process itself will be more burdensome and likely to push small players out of the market.

For the much-needed transformation to clean energy to take place, it needs to be an endeavour that citizens all over Europe are an active part of. Already hundreds of community energy projects exist across Europe, with communities and citizens active in owning and running their own renewable energy production. A range of benefits flow from these kinds of projects, from reduced energy demand, to emissions reductions, increased public support for renewables, and mobilisation of finance for investment.

The member states where renewable energy has made the best gains are those where citizens are most involved, for instance Germany and Denmark. There are higher levels of community trust in projects that are owned locally and people are much more likely to accept any negative aspects.

Very worryingly for the emerging community energy movement is the Commission proposal that straightforward subsidies, such as the feed-in-tariff, can only be given to very small renewables projects. These guidelines would create a two-tier system of renewables support. Under the draft guidelines any installation over 1MW would have to bid for support in an EU-wide bidding process. The feed-in-tariff would only be available to those projects of very small scale.

Community power projects are as diverse as communities themselves, and many are larger than 1MW. For example, in Hvide Sande in Denmark, local businesses associations have come together to ensure the town’s economic vitality through the development of a wind farm that can produce 3 MW from each of its 3 turbines. Brixton Energy in the UK, which has undertaken three separate solar electric projects (producing 52kW, 45kW and 37.24kW respectively), places part of its profits into a community energy efficiency fund focused on energy and heat-saving improvements for inner-city residents. At the other end of the scale, WindPark Druiberg GmbH & Co. KG in Germany has the capacity to produce 66 MW of electricity, and uses its profits to invest in further local low carbon strategies.

When communities decide collectively to invest in a technology they want to be able to trust it. Wind and solar are by far the most advanced technologies where community expertise already exists. The draft guidelines propose to differentiate between ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ technologies but set no criteria for doing this, and completely ignore the needs of citizen and community investors for security.

The proposal for support to renewable technologies to be granted subject to a bidding process would amount to privileging the quest for an integrated internal energy market over the opportunity for European citizens to be part of the energy transition. A tendering process would benefit large companies which can afford to take part and be devastating for smaller citizen-led initiatives. If such a bidding process is implemented, community and citizen owned renewable energy projects would be at a serious disadvantage. This this could have a knock-on effect on overall acceptance of renewables.

The draft guidelines have been published but once the public consultation closes, they will be left in the hands of DG Competition. They will not be agreed with democratic involvement of the Council and the Parliament. Germany and Austria have expressed their discontent about this, and other Commission departments such as Climate Action could be expected to have serious concerns.

Given the stringency of these guidelines is it likely that there will be plenty of pushback from member states. We need to ensure that the final guidelines do not push communities out of energy production. The chance to reform energy politics for the better our planet and citizens everywhere is too valuable to lose.

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