Card image
Energy communities demand attention: citizens and SMEs taking control of their energy

Energy communities demand attention: citizens and SMEs taking control of their energy

July 2, 2024
The Green CommYOUnity Awards, supported by MET Energía España, have recognized the efforts of two energy communities. What characterizes this model based on self-consumption?

Original article in Spanish: El Confidencial

The transition towards a renewable energy market in Spain is not only advancing at the pace of large production, distribution, and marketing companies but also through a small-scale formula that is gaining ground: energy communities. These initiatives, led by citizens, SMEs, and cooperatives, aim to decarbonize the system, save money, increase energy efficiency, and provide the independence that self-consumption offers. Their impact extends beyond economic benefits; they also advocate for a more just and inclusive transition that can benefit all sectors equally.

To promote and encourage responsible and sustainable behavior among consumers, MET Energía España has launched the Green CommYOUnity Awards, recognizing two Spanish projects located in Manresa (Barcelona) and Arroyomolinos de León (Huelva). Partnering with expert ECODES, MET Energía organized a roundtable discussion with El Confidencial titled "The Role of Energy Communities in Transitioning to Sustainable Consumption" to gather firsthand impressions from the awardees and participants. The discussion featured Ángel Crespo, CEO of MET España; Alberto Pérez, Power Director of MET España; and Carlos Pesqué, Deputy Director of the Energy and People Area at ECODES. The panel also included the presidents of the awarded cooperatives: Encarnación Molina, president of Arroyo Alumbra; and Bernat Ladrón de Guevara, president of Manresa Illumina.

To provide context on the complex energy system, the CEO of MET España began by explaining that "initially, the energy transition brought massive investment in renewables, but now it's time for this to permeate businesses, associations, and cooperatives." Ángel Crespo believes this is where energy communities come in: "They are a citizen initiative that aims to promote decarbonization and efficiency. With them, citizens move from being passive subjects to active participants in the model," he stated. "With these awards, we highlight the just decarbonization of the sector," he emphasized. However, he also noted that "regulation should support the process by developing storage, promoting active demand response services, or balancing tariffs," he clarified.

Alberto Pérez then focused his first analysis on the economic consequences of a transition that does not always consider all realities: "The main challenge is to prevent the Spanish industry from relocating. In the last two years, there has been a decrease in electricity demand in Spain due to high prices, to the point that it has dropped to levels of two decades ago." Among the solutions pointed out by the Power Director of MET Energía España to "prevent the industry from moving to places where electricity is cheaper," he highlighted "the creation of a stable legal framework that incentivizes participation and the creation of markets where income can be generated." He specified that "we need consumers to have a reasonable price while allowing producers to make their investment profitable."

Self-consumption and energy communities are precisely such ways that can facilitate this just transition. Carlos Pesqué emphasized that "we need more initiatives of this type because we are far from the figures of other countries. Our Common Energy Observatory indicates that last year there were a total of 353 communities, which means that only 4% of the total municipalities in Spain had one." According to the Deputy Director of the Energy and People Area at ECODES, the push could come from the legislative sphere: "We have a draft Royal Decree on energy communities on the table, but it is not yet firm. If we promote this model that goes beyond self-consumption, it would encourage the use of batteries, sustainable mobility, or heat networks in both urban and rural areas and industrial settings," he specified.

Participants in the roundtable listened attentively to the experience of the two energy communities awarded by MET España. Encarnación Molina detailed how the Arroyo Alumbra project was developed: "Our main goal is for everyone to participate regardless of their profile, although we pay special attention to vulnerable people," she explained. The starting point is "to ensure that no one suffers from energy poverty while raising awareness about decarbonization and addressing other social aspects such as equality." At the same time, the president highlighted the involvement of the CEIP Virgen de los Remedios school in Arroyomolinos de León (Huelva) because "thanks to the children who spread the message, the entire town has committed to the environment," she assured.

On the other hand, Manresa Ilumina was born from an association of entrepreneurs with a focus on industry: "Energy is an important vector for activities to continue," defended Bernat Ladrón de Guevara. In his opinion, "for such initiatives to work well, it is important to share resources. For example, in our cooperative, each participating company has one vote regardless of its size or business. Why? While some demand a lot of energy, others offer more roof space to install panels, and others practice efficiency intensively," he explained. "We started with the installation of one megawatt, but we already know that we are in a position to generate as much energy as we consume to be self-sufficient," the expert added.

Regulatory opportunities and collaboration

In the section on handicaps and challenges to overcome, experts called for incentives for energy companies: "It is obvious to think that these types of companies are not designed to promote the creation of energy communities, but they must provide the service. An interesting solution could be to incentivize them to favor the energy transition," pointed out Ángel Crespo. In line with the market transformation, the head of MET in Spain took the opportunity to remind that "our country is in a spectacular moment, as we have a competitive advantage. However, to continue generating industry and employment, we need to increase demand efficiently. To avoid relocation, companies must have access to competitive energy costs," he recommended.

Along the same lines, Alberto Pérez focused on two aspects related to Spanish regulation and bureaucracy. "It is important to incentivize the development of batteries to make them more economical and efficient. With backup technology that allows energy storage, we will ensure that demand does not depend on solar hours and the system will be balanced," he assured. At the same time, "it would be interesting to streamline permitting, that is, to ensure that concessions and procedures are no longer an obstacle for producers. At present, deadlines are extended too much due to the current workload of public administration". To solve this, he recommended that ministerial officials "reflect on how to ensure that users of communities or self-consumption, as well as other types of producers, can have more agility and thus be able to achieve the objectives set in the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC)."

Similarly, Carlos Pesqué pointed out that "beyond citizens and municipalities becoming more independent, generating energy locally has other derived effects at the national level in terms of sovereignty and not depending on other countries". From his perspective, "energy communities have a very important role in promoting the culture of renewables among citizens. Apart from economic savings, they actively participate in social perception". Referring to how the energy transition affects the territory and the sometimes negative image that may emerge from this paradigm shift, the expert explained that "it is true that there are photovoltaic or wind projects that have not been well planned and have not respected the territory, but thanks to cooperatives and similar initiatives, the image of renewables can continue to be associated with positive values," he concluded.

Encarnación Molina confirmed what her colleague at the roundtable pointed out: "We are the first energy cooperative in the province of Huelva, and the most remarkable thing is citizen participation from all sectors of the population. This commitment is also consolidated through training." What kind of training? "We ask participants in the energy community to take two workshops. One is related to cooperativism, while the other focuses on understanding the electricity bill," she clarified. This educational work by the organizations improves the image of renewables and helps to understand the complex energy system: "The businesses that now participate are more efficient, as they tell us. In fact, the success of our initiative stems from the enormous participation, whether through crowdfunding to buy solar panels or the permits granted by the City Council to install them on the school roof," she specified.

Finally, the participants in the round table highlighted the importance of public-private collaboration for these types of projects to come to fruition. In this way, Bernat Ladrón de Guevara specified that "for us it has always been relatively easy to talk with the Manresa City Council, the Barcelona provincial council, or even with the Generalitat of Catalonia. We have also received European aid. Communication with these public entities is fluid and natural, which makes it a very powerful tool," he admitted. In their case, this support has gone beyond the cooperative: "It is true that, over the last thirty years, this collaboration has allowed us to carry out pioneering projects for industrial areas, such as installing a daycare center for employees' children or the installation of fiber optics, among other initiatives. At this moment, we are very satisfied because we contribute to new ways of producing energy and help guarantee decarbonization," he assured in conclusion.