EUSEW20: Energy poverty and social inclusion in renewable energy communities

How can the challenge be addressed to engage consumers in the energy transition? How can social inclusion in Renewable Energy Communities (RECs) be enhanced to mitigate energy poverty? These were the core questions of the policy session "Towards a fair energy transition – enabling vulnerable consumers to take part in energy communities" held online on 29 June 2020. As a part of the yearly European Sustainable Energy Week, the session was co-organised by two SCORE partners: European University Viadrina (Florian Hanke, Claire Gauthier) and Climate Alliance (Marie Kleeschulte) and the Right to Energy Coalition.

The panel discussion featured Prof Stefan Bouzarovski from the University of Manchester and chair of the EU Energy Poverty Observatory; Barbara Kalker, regional coordinator of the Stromsparcheck initiative at Caritas Germany, member of SCORE; Mathias Maucher from the European Anti-Poverty Network; Jutta Paulus, Member of the European Parliament for Alliance 90/ The Greens and Josh Roberts who represented, the European Federation of renewable energy cooperatives. While the first thematic bloc was dedicated to the convergence of energy communities and the fight against energy poverty, the second bloc tackled the green recovery in light of the current COVID-19 crisis.

A diverse audience representing academia, social and environmental NGOs and the energy sector discussed the potential for social innovation of collectives and RECs and how it is not yet sufficiently acknowledged by scholars, practitioners and policy makers. Indeed, energy communities have a long history of dedication to mitigate energy poverty through solidarity mechanisms. Yet the biggest challenge is the engagement of low-income and vulnerable households. Often, they are concerned with other pressing issues such as paying next week’s rent. They also expect and need the profit of an investment to materialise quickly. Additionally, the financial barrier for these households to participate is not supported by an enabling framework as demanded by the recast of the European renewable energy directive. On the contrary, the so-called welfare dilemma prevents energy poor households from investing in RECs because this often threatens eligibility for or receipt of welfare benefits.

Against this background, the need for an enabling framework was discussed, empowering low-income and vulnerable households to invest, receive and keep the profit from their participation in RECs and the energy transition as such – alleviating difficulties instead of adding additional administrative burdens. In crafting this legal framework, alignment of different policies must be acknowledged. In this respect, the European Commission aims to mainstream energy and climate policy concerns into other policies, such as social policy. Since social policy is, however, subject predominantly to the national and local level, implementation is also highly dependent on actors closest to the respective national population. The problem of social inclusion can thus only be tackled by sufficient awareness and cooperation between very different actors, in different sectors and at different levels. Lack of research analysis in the field was also mentioned, in particular in respect to the gender dimension – women have a far higher poverty risk in the energy sector while investors are predominantly male.

The second bloc featured an assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic recovery plan: How relevant will it be for RECs and a just transition? Currently, there are no concrete details from the Commission about the role of RECs or how they will be supported. At the same time, there is a palpable impact especially on vulnerable consumers during the crisis: energy consumption increases as people spend more time at home and energy bills accumulate. Energy poverty policies and policies supporting RECs to tackle energy poverty are needed now more than ever.

RECs go beyond social tariffs or cash benefits – they provide participation and empowerment as a key feature of becoming a member in an REC. In alignment with the audience’s impression, the possibilities and challenges of RECs to mitigate energy poverty and thus contribute to a just transition demand a discussion between stakeholders on European, national and local policy levels combined.

Watch recording of EUSEW2020 on Youtube