17 June 2024

The EU requires member states to facilitate local renewable energy production through so-called energy communities. But in Sweden, the system is structured in a way that counteracts such solutions, conclude researchers from Linköping University. In a research project nearing completion, they present proposals for action.

Portrait of man under a tree.
Associate professor Fredrik Envall. Jonas Roslund

“In theory, there’s nothing stopping me taking a mountain bike, going to Mount Everest, climbing the mountain without oxygen, and then cycling home. But, in practice, it’s quite difficult. This is roughly what things are like for energy communities,” says Fredrik Envall, associate professor at the Department of Thematic Studies, Environmental Change, at Linköping University.

Empowering citizens

In 2019, EU member states adopted the energy policy package Clean Energy for all Europeans. It describes energy communities as a way to create a more efficient and sustainable energy system. At the same time, there is a hope that it will make Europeans more positive towards investments in renewable electricity.

In the communities, individuals, municipalities or small and medium-sized companies can join forces to produce, share and store energy. According to the EU directives, they must be run on a non-profit basis and have local roots. The intention is to make it easier for EU citizens to be involved in driving the transition themselves. But the ambitions are much larger than that. Locally co-owned solar cells or wind turbines could transfer influence over the energy system from the big companies to ordinary citizens.

“Energy communities could be a way to avoid the conflicts we see flare up around wind power establishments,” says Fredrik Envall.

No uniform legislation

According to the directives, EU countries must facilitate the formation of energy communities, but the researchers’ analysis shows that in Sweden virtually nothing has been done.

Today, anyone who wants to form an energy community must make their way through a jungle of laws, including the Swedish Electricity Act, concession legislation, consumer legislation and laws on company forms. There are also technical barriers that require a great deal of expertise and formal requirements for different electricity marketplaces. All of this makes it difficult for small, citizen-driven associations.

An interviewee from an energy community striving to work in accordance with the EU’s social sustainability goals described it as having to “wriggle like a worm”.

 

Solar cells are mounted on a roof.
ArtistGNDphotography
Also, according to the researchers’ interviews with people involved in energy communities in Sweden, the large companies that own the electricity networks are not very keen on competition.

 “In several cases, we’ve seen how they get conflicting information in their negotiations with network owners, for example about gaining access to the network. They describe it as delaying tactics or plain and simple opposition,” says Fredrik Envall.

Legislative changes and recommendations

In a newly written text – a so-called policy brief – aimed at decision-makers, the researchers propose solutions to enable the EU’s energy policy to become a reality in Sweden. 

One recommendation is to simplify legislation, another is to ensure that support systems and tax rules promote the formation of energy communities. But the public sector must also help in other ways. Therefore, the researchers propose that the municipalities be commissioned to establish advisory functions for those who want to form an energy community.

Material for study circles

The research project has also aimed to facilitate the formation of energy communities. Therefore, a written report aimed at the public has been produced, as well as material for study circles that has been developed in collaboration with organisations including the study association Studiefrämjandet and Färnebo Folk High School. Despite the difficulties, interest in energy communities is growing.

“Interest is hotting up at both local and regional levels and also among some national organisations,” concludes Fredrik Envall.

The research is funded by the Swedish Energy Agency.

Translation: Simon Phillips

Policy brief (in Swedish):Energigemenskaper – ett verktyg för en rättvis omställning? 

ArticlesTechnopolitics of future-making: The ambiguous role of energy communities in shaping energy system change, F Envall, H Rohracher, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2023, doi: 10.1177/25148486231188263

Gridlocked: Sociomaterial configurations of sustainable energy transitions in Swedish solar energy communities, F Envall, D Andersson, J Wangel, Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 102, 2023, doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2023.103200

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