On a chilly Thursday night in Athens, we talked with Chris Vrettos, consultant of Electra Energy Cooperative and proud member of Hyperion Energy Community, about the multifaceted concept of energy communities, just energy transition and the power of people thinking and acting together. We also drank local beer from a recyclable glass bottle but this is a topic for a whole new article.
Let’s start with the basics! What are energy communities and how do they work?
The focus of European energy transition policy is to achieve the transition from fossil fuel-centered energy grids to a clean energy model recognising the significance of societal involvement in this process. The 2017 EU package "Clean Energy for All Europeans" as well as the Renewable Energy Directive (2019/944) that followed encourage European citizens to become producers of clean energy themselves, highlighting the important role that they can and must play in changing the energy paradigm through just, inclusive and democratic practices. This exact realisation makes for the driving force of energy communities.
Energy communities are local cooperatives, through which citizens, small businesses and local authorities, such as municipalities (OTA), can produce, store, consume and sell energy coming from clean energy sources-sun, wind, biomass etc. - while engaging in a wide variety of community empowerment and awareness-raising activities.
There are two prevalent types of energy communities in Greece right now; the largely self-consumption-centered renewable energy communities (Article 2(16) Recast Renewable Energy Directive) and nominal, profit-driven energy communities which are created by investors with a view to profiteer from the benefits of energy communities (e.g. priority in securing connection to the electricity grid). Profit-driven ECs should not be demonized per se though, what is problematic is their abuse by large investors.
For this discussion we will mostly examine the first type, which is an autonomous legal entity based on open and voluntary participation and member’s financial contribution. It is effectively controlled by shareholders or members that are located in the proximity of the renewable energy projects that are owned and developed by that community through direct democratic procedures e.g. general assemblies where every member has 1 vote regardless of their shares. Their energy is produced by energy-generating mechanisms (such as solar panels and wind turbines) placed in a communal area (like the rooftop of a block of flats) or a third communally owned piece of land within the members’ district of residence. Whoever interested in participating in an EC could either join one of the more than already existing 1,000 ECs all around Greece, or create their own within less than a year following 8 simple steps!
The energy “travels” from the energy park to the EC members for self-consumption through what is known as virtual net metering. In virtual net metering, the energy generating mechanism isn’t directly connected to the EC member’s meters; instead all the energy produced goes straight into the grid in return for credits. The EC members receive bill credits based on the amount of electricity produced by their shares of community energy installation, which they can either rent or own outright. Any excess energy can either be stored or consumed from the members within 3 months.
That sounds like a win-win situation for all the relevant stakeholders in so many ways. Could you help us boil down the main benefits of an energy community?
Well, first and foremost EC members get to enjoy the energy they produced themselves at a considerably lower cost, without having to worry/rely on the big fish of the energy market.
They also get actively involved in the energy-related decision-making, putting energy democracy in its true perspective and experientially contributing to shifting the consumption paradigm from passive consumers, swept by the fluctuations of the competitive energy market, to empowered prosumers, whose choices actively lead to a fair and responsible energy model based on renewables, contributing to a social, environmental and energetically sustainable future. You might be surprised to hear that this actually tends to be one of the top reasons for people to join or create an energy community.
Energy communities are also a primary instrument to combat energy poverty through supporting vulnerable households and reducing energy prices - thus widening access to adequate, affordable, reliable, environmentally sound energy. It’s worth mentioning here that there is no agreed legal definition of energy poverty to this day, although in 2010, the World Economic Forum defined it as the lack of access to sustainable modern energy services and products. The lack of consensus is not merely an inconvenience – it is symptomatic of the fragmentation of energy poverty reduction policies, which energy communities can help organise and systematise through their experience and expertise.
Last but not least, people comprising an energy community aim to promote an economy based on solidarity and share the same socioeconomic and environmental concerns. To that direction, they engage in multiple activities to benefit the local areas where they operate: from building awareness on environmental sustainability and gender equality issues to capacity building through events, workshops, webinars etc.
Which are the concerns that brought the members of Hyperion together?
Hyperion consists of 36 members based in Athens, Greece - amongst which are Greenpeace, WWF and me hah, who share the same vision of a clean energy transition as a holistic concept responding to the for-profit, aggressively capitalist socioeconomic model by instead proposing a model of (energy) democracy, inclusion, innovation and good practices. We are actually the first collective self-consumption Energy Community in Athens and through our solar farm we will be able to power more than 50 homes, small businesses and vulnerable households producing and supplying 264,500 kWh of clean solar power for a period of 25 years. The process of bringing this project to life was full of funny, difficult and unthought-of moments and adventures (which you can read more about here) yet it brought us closer as a community and made us realise that there is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about and acting towards achieving it.
What best motivates you to work with energy communities? How has your motivation changed since you first started?
Environmental and sustainability issues have always sparked my interest. When I came back to Greece after my Master’s, I was searching for a field where politics, economy and sustainability would intersect. So, when I heard about energy communities at the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship in Patras back in 2019, I was more enthusiastic to delve deeper.
After more than 2 years, my appreciation about the interdisciplinary nature of ECs has grown bigger but I also get motivated by seeing ECs holistically as a hub for local empowerment and the promotion of the social and solidarity economy. From where we choose to source our groceries to how our energy is produced and becomes available to us, what we do makes a difference, and we have to decide what kind of difference we want to make. Apart from the lower cost, we should not forget that shopping and producing our energy locally makes us more independent and energy-efficient. The impact of our daily choices is what can turn us to key players in a just, inclusive energy transition.
Speaking about inclusion, the energy transition cannot be fully understood without considering gender practices and cultural norms about gender. What is the situation regarding gender representation within Greek energy communities?
The news in this area is unfortunately not great. According to a qualitative study examining 429 ECs carried out by Greenpeace, Electra Energy Cooperative and NTUA Smart Rue Lab, 93% of the ECs in Greece have less than 2 women in their administrative boards, whereas there is no female representation in the boards of 42% of the ECs. This situation is flawed in so many ways since we want our ECs to be diverse, inclusive institutions managed by polyphonic and truly democratic bodies. Furthermore, based on how gender roles are constructed in Greek society, women tend to manage most of home energy consumption, from heating to powering of household devices, so their input is very important in achieving such a radical energy paradigm shift.
These unfortunate circumstances could be attributed to Greece’s traditional patriarchal power hierarchy, lack of state gender-sensitive policies and scarce training opportunities. Everyone should be included in energy democracy. Energy communities can serve as a valuable tool to put women in the forefront of energy decision-making by enriching their access, capacity, as well as their opportunity to influence developments and we’re committed to accomplishing that with developing membership gender quotas in our projects and participating in the Gender-Just Working Group by Rescoop.eu, to find out more about how we can promote gender equality through our work.
Do you think that the legal framework in Greece is adequately supporting energy communities? Which are its strong points and where is there still room for improvement?
Greek laws were initially considered amongst the most groundbreaking in Europe when it comes to energy communities. With Law 4513/2018, Greece became the first EU member state to adopt an integrated institutional framework for energy communities and their involvement in the energy market. The pioneering nature of this law became evident by the fact that there was no secondary European legislation addressing these issues when the aforementioned rules were set in the Greek legal order (Nellas, Energy Communities of Law 4513/2018: implementation issues and challenges, Energy and Law). The Greek legal framework is also really conducive regarding virtual net metering by making it possible to offset the consumed electricity with the energy produced by renewable energy sources(RES)- eg solar panels - without requiring the production and consumption of energy to take place in the same space. Furthermore, it implements some key incentives and support measures for the ECs such as priority connection to the HEDNO (DEDDiE) grid and better energy sale prices.
However, there have been some recent changes that reduce the effectiveness of the previous legal arrangements while generating ambiguities that undermine public confidence in ECs. Specifically, Law 4759/2020 calls for the mandatory participation of all ECs in tenders from January 2022 to ensure operational support for RES projects. This amendment is basically an attempt to combat the second type of ECs I mentioned in the first question, which unfortunately makes for the largest part of ECs in Greece to date. To refresh your memory, these nominal ECs are not genuine initiatives of citizens and local communities but rather a front to conceal private investment initiatives trying to avoid tenders and essentially break the rules of healthy competition. This is indeed a valid concern yet Law 4759/2020 seems to be the wrong answer to the right question. As an alternative, Greenpeace and Electra Energy Cooperative proposed clear and cohesive criteria to help differentiating the citizens’ initiatives from the private investor schemes, one of which is to constrain the number of members allowed from 15 to maximum 60 in order to ensure a wider participation base from people of all economic and social strata.
This legislation poses a severe threat to the development of ECs in Greece from 2022 onwards-and it’s not the only one. Lack of funding and government grants and ponderous bureaucratic procedures are some of the problems that hinder the development and expansion of energy communities. Additionally, the operational costs due to the mandatory commencement of trade in the tax office tend to act as a deterrent for the establishment of small collective clean energy self-production schemes by households. Combining the above state-induced difficulties with the goal of at least 600MW of new self-generating schemes by 2030 set in the National Plan for Energy and Climate, we are confronted with a potential impasse that can be avoided and/or resolved by strategic policy changes and coordinated awareness-raising and capacity building campaigns by state bodies. We should also take into consideration the key concept of energy efficiency, which simply put is using less energy to perform the same task, a concept often disregarded in Greek energy discourse.
The future of just transition, not only in Greece but also in the EU, lies in energy communities. In order to become independent from carbon sources in an equitable and inclusive way, it is necessary to focus on innovative energy models, based on renewable sources, solidarity economy, storage and smart grids, where consumers take an active role through self-production and small-scale energy exchange practices, so I am positive that ECs will finally survive and overcome the legislative and functional barriers. Until then let’s all try to play our part in this transition one choice at a time.
Read more about energy communities and how to participate in, or create one from scratch here:
Find out more about Hyperion Energy Community here: