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EU: Clean energy movement gaining traction

Paul Hockenos in Berlin
February 26, 2024

Citizen energy collectives in five EU member states — Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece and Poland — are making a difference in Europe's clean energy transition.

A gray-haired woman holding a sunflower (Ursula Sladek) and a gray-haired, bearded man (Michael Sladek) smile broadly as they stand between rows of solar panels
Ursula and Michael Sladek (pictured here) founded EWS Schönau, one of the first German clean energy cooperatives, which today boasts 11,299 membersImage: EWS Schönau

The European Union's citizen energy movement is growing — albeit in fits and starts — particularly in southern and east-central Europe, where clean energy collectives were until recently unknown quantities.

The driving force behind this growth is the groundbreaking 2019 EU legislation that stipulates that by 2024, clean energy communities, like the many thousands already scattered across the north of the continent, must be able to operate in every member state.

By the end of this year, every EU country should have adopted legislation that enables collectives of renewable energy activists to own and operate their own energy parks and sell and share the energy they produce.

This will contribute in more than one way to the bloc's drive to become climate neutral by 2050, the primary goal of the European Green Deal.

More than just green power generation

But even though turning energy consumers into prosumers (people who produce and consume their own energy) is central to clean energy collectives, these communities are about more than just generating green electricity.

The citizen energy movement was born in Germany and Denmark in the 1980s and is about democratizing energy — long a sector with rigid hierarchical structures and opaque processes.

In the past, consumers paid energy bills and accessed heat and power at the flip of a switch — no questions asked. The dirty business of mineral extraction and power generation usually happened far away from populations and was often outsourced to other countries. Utilities reaped massive profits — no questions asked there either.

The cooperative model in Germany

But air pollution, the risks of nuclear power and then climate change propelled concerned citizens into action.

In Germany, pioneers relied on the 19th century model of "Genossenschaften" (cooperatives) to organize citizens and raise money to buy solar farms, wind parks and even whole electricity grids. In the 1990s, they won the right to sell their product to the utilities, and in 2000 to receive set prices that ensured the repayment of their investment.

The proliferation of cooperatives was a critical, first step in the "Energiewende," Germany's clean energy transition, the fruits of which now supply the country with over half its electricity.

Collectives large and small

Various types of energy collectives now exist across Europe. Today, however, they don't just focus on zero-carbon solar and wind power, but also on energy efficiency, storage, biomass, sustainable transportation and flexibility.

Some are tiny — just a handful of members — but others, such as EWS Schönau in Germany and Ecopower in Belgium, provide tens of thousands of homes with renewable energy. The Brussels-based NGO Rescoop.eu, a staunch supporter of citizen energy, estimates that there are 2,250 energy cooperatives run by 1.5 million citizens across the continent.

Energy cooperatives are non-profit, grassroots projects that are democratically organized. Members may share in some of the proceeds and can usually purchase their homegrown energy for less than the market price. In many cooperatives, each member has a single vote, regardless of how many shares they own.

Uneven implementation across Europe

The EU legislation that is part of the Clean Energy for All Europeans package takes the citizen energy phenomenon in Europe to another level, even though in some countries much remains to be done if clean energy collectives are to flourish.

People hold pro-clean energy banners in different European languages at a European Energy Democracy event in Spain in 2017
The clean energy democracy movement is connected across Europe and is helping startup collectives in east-central European countriesImage: REScoop.eu-2

This was the finding of five journalists in Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece and Poland who collaborated on DW's cross-border clean energy communities series 2024.

Germany should enable energy sharing

In Germany, the focus was on the Rhein-Sieg citizen energy cooperative located in Siegburg in western Germany. This co-op of 350 members boasts 14 photovoltaic sites in and around the city as well as an e-car sharing enterprise.

Even though 900 such energy cooperatives exist in Germany, the EU legislation implies that Germany's legal definition of energy cooperatives is not as enabling as it should be.

The Rhein-Sieg co-op wants to start "energy sharing," which means making its clean electricity directly available to other co-op members or interested local consumers at a reasonable price. Thus far, this has been impossible because the co-op requires cost-effective access to the local grid.

An array of solar panels beneath a clear blue sky, Catalunya, Spain
This solar park belongs to Som Energia, a large not-for-profit energy cooperative in Catalunya, Spain, which began selling green energy in October 2011Image: Som Energia

"In Germany, anyone who sells electricity via the grid is automatically considered an electricity trader and has to pay taxes, such as electricity tax, and transmission fees to the grid operators," explained Felix Schäfer, co-founder and co-chair of Bürgerwerke, a cooperative and electricity trader that markets electricity generated by German renewable energy communities. This, he told DW, means that energy-sharing co-ops have to pass the high costs on to customers.

Woefully insufficient legislation in some countries

In contrast to Germany, democratic clean energy collectives are new in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Poland.

Pioneers like the Georgiev brothers in Belozem, Bulgaria, and Roman Kaczmarczyk, the mayor of the Polish spa town Ladek-Zdroj, have forged ahead, relying on existing legislation to set up their collectives. They battled the authorities in their respective countries to make any progress at all — as did their contemporaries in Croatia and Greece.

All of these energy pioneers had hoped that their countries' transposition of the EU legislation would be a game-changer, allowing both their collectives to flourish and to entice others to do the same. But grid operators aren't cooperating and the legislation, although now transposed, falls short of actually enabling energy cooperatives to function.

Optimism despite the long road ahead

In Croatia, for example, prosumer NGOs gripe that the country's citizen energy legislation includes unwarranted restrictions. Croatian authorities limit the output of community parks to 500 kilowatts, which is less than about 1,000 panels, and require communities both to be non-profit and to employ an expert — a tall order for grassroots projects.

A group of adults and children gather around an electric car in a parking space
The members of the Bürgerenergie Rhein-Sieg cooperative in Germany already do car sharingImage: Thomas Schmitz/Bürgerenergie Rhein-Sieg eG

In fact, citizen energy communities in Croatia have to fulfill much the same requirements as large wind-farm projects worth hundreds of millions of euros.

But despite the obstacles and setbacks, there's plenty of optimism about the momentum. According to one study, 61% of those questioned around Europe said they could imagine joining a local energy cooperative. What's more, support was highest in those countries that are just beginning to test the waters: Romania (85%), Italy (75%), Bulgaria (75%), Poland (74%), Greece (71%) and Spain (69%).

And now citizen energy trailblazers have the EU squarely behind them.

Logo of Journalismfund Europe

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan

This article is part of a six-part series on energy communities in the European Union conducted with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

Bulgaria: Community-based energy initiatives drive change

Headshot of a man (Paul Hockenos) with red hair and glasses
Paul Hockenos Writer focusing on renewable energy and the climate crisis in Europe