Energy Communities: the alternative approach

By Cosimo Razeto

In the last decades we have witnessed how the growth of renewable systems has contributed to the global energy demand supply. Thus, even if our cities and nations’ requirements are constantly increasing, the so-called “clean energy generation” is growing as well, constituting the half of new power generation systems installed recently: global wind and solar capacity increasement is estimated from 20% up to 40% annually, while biomass and hydro are increasing by around 8% and 4% respectively (Staffell, Jansen, Chase, Cotton, & Lewis, 2018). One of the most advanced concepts claims to change the approach from our traditional way to supply buildings toward a distributed generation for small utilities and district heating systems to fuel bigger areas in dense urbanized contexts. The natural consequence is the born and raising of energy communities in different countries.

An energy community consists of a group of citizens, limited to a village or even a single building, involved in a legal subject as energy producers, consumers, and managers with the goal of a sustainable way of living. They collaborate to generate heat and power through renewable and local resources, such as solar or wind, biomass or hydroelectric plants. The neologism that describes the volunteers is “prosumer”, from the words producer and consumer.

Fig. 1 - Energy communities in the producer-consumer scenario

Several are the benefits, going from the possibility to become producers and providers of power through the national grid, to the fight against energy poverty, which is an increasing issue in areas beaten by unordinary climatic phenomena that just recently started to appear in situ. Distributed generation also represents a more reliable source of power, and with the ongoing energy crisis this element surely puts this approach at the centre of the debate.

Energy communities are already present in a few European and North American countries. The village of Jühnde, in Lower Saxony, is the example of a rural community that decided to exploit some of the products of the local agricultural activities for energy generation, producing biogas that is converted into electricity and heat by a CHP plant with 700 kW electrical and 750 kW thermal power, able to supply the 145 village houses.

Fig. 2 - The town of Jühnde

The town of beZED in Sutton, south London, is instead a case study for architects and engineers, being the first UK’s settlement specifically designed to become a sustainable community. In this case, the approach is different: instead of aim to an entirely local production, the creators worked to reduce the power need with the Passive Haus methodology, that consists in design extremely well performing buildings, limiting the net requirement, which is anyway partially satisfied by renewable generation.

Despite the undoubted advantages of this approach, the small-scale societies struggled to diffuse due to a series of factors, such as the lack of will or coordination between the local citizens or the difficulties to build complex urban scale, closed-loop power systems. In fact, a small village like the ones mentioned are much easier to realize if planned since sketch phase, while the adaptation of existing settlements appears to be a more challenging intervention. However, recent innovations in building and energy engineering push towards this direction.

Fig. 3 - Cogeneration Heat and Power plant scheme of Jühnde

As example of people that aim to be citizens in their local territories and not just inhabitants, the energy communities represent an alternative to the actual productive and distributing system, based on big suppliers that provide energy on regional scale. The number of these groups and towns is destinated to increase with the rising diffusion of small-scale energy generators, and they surely contribute to the ecological transition that the recent climate disasters make every day more and more urgent.


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