Global policy, paradigm shift and the focus on a people-centred approach with Stefan Schurig

“Local participation in community energy projects strengthen democracies by allowing citizens to take part in the decision-making process of their own community and by investing and owning their energy infrastructure.”

Before becoming the Director of Climate, Energy and Cities at the World Future Council (WFC) in 2007, Stefan was the spokesperson for Greenpeace Germany for 10 years. The World Future Council is a sister organisation of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, better known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. In his role at World Future Council, Stefan Schurig started the global policy campaign on climate change, renewable energy and sustainable city development.

About the World Future Council’s missions: “In one sentence I’d say we import and export future just policies for the next generations. Our mission is to identify and spread exemplary policy solutions globally. The mission of the WFC Climate and Energy team is to advise governments at all levels and facilitate an international policy dialogue particularly on renewable energy and regenerative urban development. The aim is to build capacity and cross-sectoral networks among policy-makers to improve legislative frameworks to facilitate the transition towards 100% renewable energy and towards the creation of regenerative cities.”

About the shift. “The paradigm shift we are observing is the transition from a vertical to a horizontal structure — from a centralized, hierarchical, supplier-centric energy infrastructure to decentralized, customer-centric and participatory energy models. Most of the existing energy markets are characterized by complex centralized infrastructures, a vertical supply chain, and dominated by few big utilities, whereas future energy markets will be decentralized, with a horizontal supply chain and where benefits are widely distributed among new actors and stakeholders, including individual citizens and small businesses. An example of this can be found in the Energiewende in Germany: more than one third of the electricity consumption is coming from renewable sources with onshore wind (12%) and solar PV (6%) being the major contributors. If one looks at who owns, finances and runs these new Gigawatts of capacity, one finds that it is primarily citizens, energy cooperatives, farmers and small to medium-sized companies that are driving the energy transition. In 2012, 47% of the installed capacity was in the hands of communities and individuals. Only 12% was invested by the conventional energy utilities. And as a German study revealed, projects that were partially or fully owned by local investors generated some €5.4 billion and created a total of about 100,000 jobs in 2012 in both the construction sector and in operations”

About the need to be visionary. “The importance of having a clear, shared vision cannot be underestimated. Such a vision needs to be accompanied by ambitious target-setting. This is why we think it is important to set visionary targets such as the 100% renewable energy target. Setting an ambitious, long-term renewable energy target also shows political commitment, and can provide both stakeholders and the population a clearer view of the long-term vision for the region, and a better understanding of how they fit within it. It catalyses change by providing an official mandate for action. To identify and communicate a 100% renewable energy target has several additional advantages: it can help engage a wide range of stakeholders; it can ensure a more efficient deployment of both technical and administrative resources and reduce the risks of duplication and competing policy goals; it can help give key stakeholders (such as utilities, or private investors) the confidence required to make large investments, like in transmission and distribution grids. By increasing investment certainty, setting ambitious targets can also help attract domestic and international investors, ultimately making it easier to achieve the target. Experience in the European Union and in many other jurisdictions around the world demonstrates that targets can also help build awareness, both among external audiences, and among the citizens in the local area. This awareness can be essential to building public support among local citizens and businesses to help to achieve the aim.”

About the focus on a people-centred approach: “The structural transformation from a centralized to a decentralized system goes hand in hand with the creation of a people-centred, community-driven type of transition. Within this context, the concept of community energy is spreading across the world, defining a new way of organizing the energy system. Community energy usually refers to energy projects where communities exhibit a high degree of ownership and control as well as benefiting collectively from the outcomes. This means that citizens are not only consumers of energy but become so called ‘prosumers’, i.e. they are given a chance to produce their own energy, to use it, and to sell it (and make a profit out of it!). As mentioned earlier, in Germany, many communities have invested in renewable energy projects and cooperatives which allowed citizens not only to own the energy infrastructure and but also to take part in the decision-making processes and to agree together on their energy future in the interest of the citizens of today and tomorrow

These cooperatives and community ownership projects allowed efficient and democratic funding for renewable energy projects but also helped to foster a sense of ownership and belonging to a community. This is a key aspect of the energy transition as it naturally makes acceptance of new infrastructures in the community much easier compared to when large, external companies come in and invest for their own profit. People are more willing to accept wind turbines in their backyard if they own the infrastructure and can profit from the energy they produce.

This people-centred transition is allowing what we call a democratization of the energy market. In fact, local participation in community energy projects strengthen democracies by allowing citizens to take part in the decision-making process of their own community and by investing and owning their energy infrastructure.

Local-added value is another key aspect of this democratic, people-centred transition. Instead of spending money on purchasing fossil fuel resources from far away, money is spent and invested locally for the community to benefit. This increases self-sufficiency and resilience of local communities, making them more independent and reliant on their own means.

Lastly, it needs to be mentioned, that this community, people-centred approach is not only more democratic but also more effective. The widespread citizen participation that it entails coupled with the cooperation and large involvement of all different stakeholders that it requires, are extremely important accelerating factors which speed up the process of the transition itself.”

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou