The development of Local Energy Communities is a vision which aims to address the pressing future global issues of energy efficiency, healthy food sources and water management. The fact that a very large percentage of EU regional development funds remain unused represents an opportunity for the Member States to review the European energy market strategy and develop a policy program aimed at funding these projects.
By 2050 nearly 10 billion people will live on earth, requiring energy efficiency, clean water, healthy food sources, housing and community development. These are the forefront of pressing global issues that must be addressed. Autonomous Local Energy Communities, off-grid-capable neighbourhoods, comprised of renewable energy, water management and waste-to-resource systems, are defined in literature as “laboratories for the future” or “test fields” for a structural transition towards commons-oriented, non-accumulative, socio-economic systems.
The promotion of local renewable energy autonomy and an integrated energy market at the European level are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. When framed against an approach to climate adaptation that integrates the promotion of energy autonomy with that of water conservation and food production, we can see the potential of enhancing the comparative advantages inherent in the ecosystems of each region, thereby boosting economic growth and trade across Europe. This framework is called Local Energy Communities. Such an approach has the potential of being particularly beneficial to economically marginalised regions in southern Europe. It may also create economies of scale that will decrease the costs of production, the commercialisation and the consumption of renewable energy, namely by increasing the transmission capacity between southern European countries and central/northern European countries. This will contribute to the reversal of the stagnation of renewable energy capacity in recent years by increasing incentives for investment in this sector. It will also create incentives for renewable energy consumption, especially in European regions whose geographical conditions make it difficult for them to produce renewables.
The methodology for the development and implementation of Local Energy Communities should be based on localising regions with ecosystems that favour the endogenous production of renewable energy.
The fact that a very large percentage of EU regional development funds remains unused represents an opportunity for Member States to review the European energy market strategy and develop a funding programme for Local Energy Communities. The methodology for their development and implementation should be based on localising regions with ecosystems that favour the endogenous production of renewable energy. They would be identified and classified according to the measurable productivity and growth potential of endogenous renewable energy sources. The programme should assess the potential of regions for a particular renewable energy technology based on their current production figures and/or export specialisation in this sector. The comparative advantage indicates whether a region is better able than others to compete in a particular technology. But even if a region is not yet specialised in a certain sector it might develop a comparative advantage over time, especially if the sector is based on rapid innovation. The programme would also include funding provisions aimed at promoting the intra-European transfer of technology, so that those regions that are not yet able to produce the renewable energy they need, can develop their respective comparative advantage and have the opportunity to do so at a later stage. The eco-villages of Tamera in Portugal and Skala in Greece are presented as example “small cells” of community, which, if replicated in an integrated manner, could become templates for such a programme.
Spain’s energy ‘production’ structures from a renewables point of view
The EU aims for each EU-member to import 10% of its energy from its neighbouring countries (increasing to 15% by 2030). Spain’s current high supply of wind energy and the potential for its further increase is a significant comparative advantage that may also benefit consumers in neighbouring countries through projects of common interest (PCIs), such as priority corridors of north-south electricity interconnections in Western Europe. However, the ongoing stagnation in investment, despite signs of economic recovery, demands special incentives for the development of the needed infrastructure. The drastic cut backs in incentives in 2010 and 2012 led to a halt in investments in the renewables infrastructure (because incentives had been too high and the general national economic situation too difficult at the time). Due to renewables stagnation, nuclear and coal-powered electricity has been slightly augmenting over the last three years. With regards to the EU’s objective for every member state to produce 20% of its overall energy ‘production’ from renewables by 2020, Spain should be a focus for new investment programmes. This could bring about even higher percentages of renewables (linked to job creation in the sector) due to its high wind- (but also solar-) resources, but also the low population density. Still, investment policy with overly high compensation for solar and wind energy infrastructure should not be repeated.
Autonomous Neighbourhoods: The rise of Eco-communities in Greece
The development of autonomous and resilient neighbourhoods that power and feed self-reliant families is spreading right across the world. It is a vision which aims to address the pressing future global issues of water scarcity, healthy food sources and energy autonomy.
In Greece, at least twelve eco-networks are included in the Solidarity Economy Networks of which at least five are eco-communities: the Skala Ecovillage in mount Holomondas, Thessaloniki region; the Telaithrion Project on Evia island; Kalamos island eco-community; Ecotopia in Ithaka island; Enargeia in the Pelion region.
The Skala Ecovillage in the region of Thessaloniki is an attempt to form and accomplish an ecologically friendly and collective way of living. In 2014 a core group of 8-10 people started working intensively on the implementation of their vision which is, as they state, “connecting the political and social vision with the idea of a life free of fear, create an eco-village as a school of life where the training of personality is getting enriched by the participation in the common affairs, based on trust, solidarity and cooperation”, having as a goal to become “a small cell of a community that will be exemplary for the whole society.”
Tamera ecovillage (Alentejo): A prototype of a Local Energy Community?
Tamera, an ecovillage founded in 1995 in Odemira, southwestern Alentejo, Portugal, is implementing an integrated model of commons-based livelihood, based on regional-level autonomy in terms of water, renewable energy and food. This could serve as a source of best practices and lessons on how to develop Local Energy Communities. According to Bernd Walter Müller, the director of Tamera’s Global Ecology Institute (GEI), Alentejo has an annual average amount of rainfall similar to that of Berlin and one of the highest exposures to sunlight in Europe. However, the form of intensive agriculture that has been practiced in the region since the mid-20th century impoverished the soil and depleted its capacity to absorb rainwater, contributing to the region’s ecological, economic and demographic decline.
Tamera took advantage of the abundance of sunshine and rain in the region to begin the development of a commons-based economy, based on a strategy of ecosystem regeneration aimed at promoting autonomy in the fields of water, energy and food production. This strategy aims to be recognised as a replicable model in terms of sustenance of life in autonomous communities and climate change mitigation.
According to sources from Tamera’s Ecology Team, the ecovillage was already producing 54% of all the electricity consumed within its premises in late 2015. This is thanks to the experimental research on renewable energy-based technology that is being developed at Tamera’s Test field 1, with the purpose of developing machinery aimed at supporting the creation of energy autonomous communities.
The Permaculture system known as the Water Retention Landscape (WRL), which combines rainwater conservation, reforestation and soil regeneration, allowed Tamera to become fully autonomous in terms of water usage in 2011. The purpose of the WRL is not to promote complete autonomy in food production, but to be a replicable case study of how to regenerate ecosystems and sustain biodiversity in degraded areas. The soil regeneration promoted by the WRL led to a significant increase in the quantity and diversity of plant species, which, besides serving as an edible “food forest”, created a diverse habitat that attracted a variety of native wildlife species that have previously disappeared from the area. The increased biodiversity supported the resilience of crops by controlling pests and enhancing pollination. According to Tamera’s Ecology Team, thanks to the WRL, in 2015, the community was producing about 14% of the food consumed within its premises. About 65% was bought from organic farmers in the region, while the remnant was imported.
The framework hereby called Local Energy Communities integrates the promotion of autonomy in terms of renewable energy production with that of water conservation and food production; it has the potential of enhancing the comparative advantages inherent in the ecosystems of each region, therefore boosting economic growth and exchanges across Europe. Member States might review the European energy market strategy and develop a policy program aimed at funding Local Energy Communities.
Bibliography https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/infrastructure/electricity-interconnection-targets ; http://ec.europa.eu/energy/infrastructure/transparency_platform/map-viewer/main.html
 http://data.europa.eu/eli/reg_del/2016/89/oj; https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/infrastructure/interconnections-south-west-europe