(Em)Powering Cities in the European Union

From political will to political action

Renewable energy remains at the top of the agendas of many policy makers worldwide. And that is for good reason – Technologies for renewable power generation, heating and cooling, and transport are affordable and most often the cheapest option. They are also advancing national energy security, economic growth, job creation, emission reduction and decrease local pollution. Also in Europe, the transition towards renewable energy is underway: Away from an energy system powered by increasingly expensive and unsustainable fossil fuel resources towards one powered fully by abundant, local, and affordable renewable energy sources.

Local governments and its legislators are particularly invested in this transformation. Exploiting the full potential of existing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies has allowed cities and municipalities to reduce their carbon footprint, boost local economies and improve health and living conditions for its citizens. Meanwhile, the majority of local policy makers seek guidance in policy planning and concrete measures to overcome challenges in achieving the transition to renewable energy. Too often, political will signaled in international commitments such as the Paris Agreement does not translate into political action on the national level.

This is where the World Future Council with its Global Renewables Congress,in cooperation with Energy Cities provides support with a new policy guidebook. It lists ‘action areas’ that offer sufficient flexibility to be adapted to the local context – the ‘local DNA’. The ten action areas are put together as a toolbox including learnings from already existing policy recommendations such as the Building Blocks, developed by members of the Global 100 % RE Platform.

This is a timely policy tool for European policy makers, especially as the implementation of the Clean Energy Package for All Europeans may have a leverage effect on local energy transitions as the European Union aims at scaling up renewables and energy efficiency measures as well as gathering national climate and energy plans from member states. Legislators across government levels play a crucial role in this. They can catalyze and facilitate the implementation of the transition, develop policies to overcome remaining barriers and ensure that international commitments are implemented.

Common but differentiated conditions

All communities and cities have many commonalities. Exchanging experiences and best practices on energy transition can therefore be very effective. However, it has to be based on the recognition that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and on the fact that there are always transferable and non-transferable, rather specific elements of policies. Two exemplary cases, the city of Frankfurt am Main in Germany and Kisielice in Poland are proof of the variety of paths towards the same goal, namely a local zero economy. Frankfurt City Council adopted an energy and climate action plan in 2008, comprising a set of 50 concrete measures to reduce GHG emissions. Central elements aimed at decreasing heat and energy demands by rewarding electricity savings in private households, public awareness raising campaigns, modernizing residential buildings and promoting energy efficiency in businesses. Further, the ‘Master Plan for 100 % Climate Mitigation’ envisions covering the Frankfurt’s energy consumption by 100 % local and regional renewable energy sources until 2050. With this roadmap, Frankfurt intends to decrease its energy import costs of € 2 billion a year to zero. Kisielice, a small city in the North of Poland some 6000 inhabitants decided to become independent from fossil fuels and hence invested in two windfarms and additional renewable energy capacities back in the late 1990s. The main motivation for the municipality was to stimulate the local economy. After setting the target to become Poland’s first self-sufficient community, Ki­sielice now generates more electricity than it needs and has reached the target of a self-suf­ficient community.

This shows how the ‘uniqueness’ of a particular place marks the point of departure for a modernization of the energy sector. Sometimes even iconic narratives such as ‘our city has always been a coal mining city’ can be ‘upgraded’ to ‘our city has always taken care of its own energy resources’. It would build on an existing narrative but suggests an additional dimension. Understanding existing identities and narratives first is therefore indispensable. The transition to a more sustainable future needs to begin with understanding each place.

All actors, from policy makers and legislators to local activists, must build on the distinctive features and potential engrained in a particular place which can be described with the concept of a ‘local DNA’. Accordingly, any sustainability action plan will need to correspond with this local DNA, allowing the community to continuously evolve towards a more optimal form – e.g. to harvest local renewable energy sources. Planning for a systemic, future-appropriate change must hereby acknowledge that individuals and communities are indigenous to a particular place, and incorporate these native attributes into planning processes. Understanding the local DNA of a particular place and displaying it alongside the characteristics of its climate, geography, ecology, cultural values, economy, social capital, human resources, public awareness and education is the first step.

Triggering action through wide participation

The local energy transition is technically feasible and already the cheapest and most resilient option for most places in Europe. An energy sector powered by renewable energy sources will inevitably lead to a number of new business models as well. Those will be more inclusive and participatory business models offering numerous benefits for the community such as jobs, tax revenues, ownership etc. It seems that the main barrier for local communities to participate in the energy transition is based on a lack of political action. These ten action areas provide policy support to unleash the potential of citizens and display a number of opportunities for local communities to take concrete action. In this sense, ‘Participation triggers acceptance – acceptance triggers investments’, seems to be an adequate formula.