Energy’s Local Power
Municipalities could play a crucial role in the energy transition of countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), experts believe. Despite the challenges of dependence on central governments and lack of funds, these countries could take the important step of putting power in the hands of communities.
Even though it is not a big municipality with some 55 thousand inhabitants, Alba Iulia in Romania relies on strong connections with many of the smart-solution suppliers today. In 2016, a strong initiative for a smart city began with the municipality offering its space in return for free appliances and creative ideas that would be suitable for the city. They started with smart lighting on a road and a smart public building. Mapping for smart energy sources in the future was also proposed.
“They are wonderful, these kinds of smart appliances”, says Florin Andronescu from the Alba Iulia Energy Agency. He presented the progress of the Alba County in Romania towards sustainable energy at the CEE Energy Transition Conference, which took place this past October in Prague, Czech Republic.
Thanks to the political will of the Alba County Council 10 years ago, the county’s sustainable development is supported by a coherent strategy for sustainable energy. As a result, the Alba Energy Masterplan was established to work as a framework for regional and local energy planning. The Alba Local Energy Agency coordinated the plan and strongly promoted the Covenant of Mayors initiative as an opportunity for the local authorities to obtain coherence in their sustainable energy planning.
Alba County took part in the Covenant of Mayors six years ago, and, as of today, 14 mayors have signed the initiative. According to Andronescu, it provided an invaluable know-how in paving the road to sustainable energy in Alba County.
Commitment to a sustainable future
According to Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe, there are a number of things municipalities can to help the energy transition along. Even though they are not able to replace the central government due to particular regulations, many local municipalities are led by mayors who belong to the party in power. “In Poland you have a number of mayors who have been engaged in energy-transition programs and really have been pushing the central government in Warsaw to have a more positive position towards energy-transition legislation in Europe”, says Trio.
Referring to their dependence on the energy sector and the administrative structure of most states, Borislav Sandov from the Climate Action Coalition in Bulgaria is a bit more sceptical about how large a role municipalities can realistically play. The expert points out that in many Eastern European countries there exist strong centralisation and delegated budgets and that in practice it is impossible for most municipalities to look for solutions on their own.
“However, municipalities could have quite a bigger role if they create something like energy cooperatives together with some of the citizens and local businesses in their territory”, Sandov says. Municipalities could act as a buffer and consume part of the leftover electrical energy produced by citizens that they do not need, explains the expert. “I really hope that we will be seeing such developments in the future.”
A rocky road
On their way to energy transition, the CEE countries face a number of challenges that can slow them down. To a large extent, these challenges are the same for Western European countries, believes Trio, since all countries need their governments to create a road map to make it clear where they are heading and the path being followed to get there.
According to Trio, however, CEE countries are less convinced of the need for an energy transition versus their Western neighbours. “They feel less strongly about issues like climate change; they feel less strongly about the problems associated with coal in the energy system and so on”, Trio says. “So there is a bit of a different perspective. The first challenge is to ensure that this perspective changes.”
Sandov traces the current situation in the region back to the past century when energy systems in all states east of the Iron Curtain were extremely centralised, monopolised, not transparent and based mainly on conventional sources of energy. “People didn’t care about the energy sector because it was taboo. They only had the role of consumers”, Sandov explains.
In practice it is impossible for most municipalities to look for solutions on their own.
The change from a centrally led system under the communist regimes brought a huge disruption in the economic system for many of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, believes Trio. And because of that, CEE countries still feel they need to recover from that transition first before thinking about the next, explains the expert.
“So the transition to an energy system of a new type that is decentralised, not monopolised, that gives the opportunity to everyone to be both a producer and a consumer, that is extremely transparent and gives instant access to information about production and consumption, takes time, lots of effort and political will”, comments Sandov.
According to him, a lack of the initiative required on the part of both businesses and civil society should also be listed among the challenges presently faced. “However I hope this will happen, and we will have a democratic, free, transparent and clean energy system.”
Despite the feeling in CEE countries that it is still not the time to move on with the energy transition, Wendel Trio is absolutely certain that now is the right time. He believes that these countries could take a number of steps much faster than many of the Western European countries that have more infrastructure already in place and might need more time to shift. “It’s a bit in the minds of people”, he says.
And minds are changing. Borislav Sandov believes that the idea of an energy transition has become more and more popular among the societies in the region, giving as an example a handful of campaigns from the past few years related to shale gas, fracking, thermoelectric power plants and nuclear energy. “More and more people have started to look for solutions to guarantee their energy independence. The percentage is still low compared to Western Europe, but it is increasing.”