Energy communities are here to stay!

Check out this Editorial by Christiane Egger, FEDARENE Vice-President for Climate Neutrality and Deputy Manager of OÖ Energiesparverband, extracted from our publication ‘Sustainable Regions in Action‘.

Energy communities are here to stay!

A lot has been said about putting the consumers at the centre of the energy system. However, in most cases, this remained an empty slogan. A concept that is now really unleashing the power of a new decentralised energy world in which citizens play a key role are Renewable Energy Communities.

What is new? Traditionally, the exchange of electricity between two consumers – be they households, businesses, or public bodies – was only possible with the involvement of an electricity retailer. In 2018, the Renewable Energy Directive brought a new concept: in Renewable Energy Communities (RECs), citizens, SMEs or public bodies are allowed to produce, consume, store, sell and share renewable energy in local proximity without an electricity retailer. The main purpose is to provide environmental, economic or social benefits rather than financial profits.

Many Member States have been taking their time in fully transposing this new instrument. Both the paradigm shift towards a new decentral energy system (in which RECs are only a first step) as well as creating the technical services needed for them proved to be challenging.

Austria was among the first Member States to fully transpose the relevant articles and made the establishment of RECs possible in 2021. We at the OÖ Energiesparverband, the regional energy agency of Upper Austria, launched a One-Stop-Shop (OSS) for Energy Communities on the day the new legislation came into force (the OSS was developed in the context of the H2020 project UP-STAIRS).

Two of our initial assumptions were proven to be true. Firstly, from the very beginning, there was a high interest in RECs and the high potential for local energy sharing was evident. Secondly, however, as a completely new instrument, a high need for information and guidance existed which still exists today after 2.5 years of intense support action. Within our OSS, we have held over 1,100 advice sessions for citizens, municipalities and other stakeholders, and we personally informed and trained over 3,200 participants in 57 events – of which 21 events were dedicated only to RECs (training courses, conferences, workshops etc.).

Also, our own learning curve was steep: advice on RECs covers a wide range of issues! Regulatory questions often concern the geographic boundaries of the REC, the legal form, the membership and what a REC is allowed to do and what not. Financial aspects often relate to funding programmes, grid tariffs or tax questions. Technical and organisational issues typically concern grid connection and interaction with DSOs, load optimisation, internal accounting systems, service providers and in general what to do at which step in setting up a REC.

Despite the high level of complexity and the slow start, RECs and other forms of energy sharing have already taken root in our energy system. Today in Upper Austria, there are over 500 shared PV installations in larger buildings, over 170 RECs with over 3,000 members and more than 20 citizens energy communities (which will be the next step).

The journey towards a truly decentralised energy system has just begun, and we are only starting to understand how it will transform the way we produce, share and use energy. One thing, however, is already crystal clear: Renewable Energy Communities are here to stay!

This editorial is extracted from our publication ‘Sustainable Regions in Action‘. Discover more here!