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Belgium as a key player in the collective action initiatives.

Home Communities For Future Forums Belgium COMETS Belgium as a key player in the collective action initiatives.

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    Joan Segura
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    From the early 90s to today, there has been a series of innovative initiatives to support the energy transition started by, or with high involement of citizens. We could trace back the principles of these initiatives in Belgium from mutual aid initiatives for food and other goods to alleviate poverty in second half of the 1800 century, often inspired by the UK models. These translated into energy initiatives in the early 90’s that aimed to reduce dependence to a centralized system of nuclear power in electricity. Nowadays, the model expand to other areas of energy transition, such as heating and cooling or mobility, and has developed links with municipalities, research institutes and small business parks.

     

    These models were both driven by food prices rising, increasing urbanization and housing difficulties, all from the industrialization period.  It however also stemmed from the lack of representation of those affected by those trends, and finding alternatives through mutuality and the numbers to make the political organization have enough weight. These movements were solidified by the creation Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers just before the mid-century near Manchester in the UK. The group was set mostly, but not only, by weavers, who after the mechanization of the industrial revolution, amongst other factors, felt into poverty and could not afford food supplies. Its original set up provided only flour, oatmeal, butter, sugar and candles. This cooperative took into account previous failed attempts, setting the Rochdale Principles as a basis of its functioning. This was a stepping stone in the cooperative movement. 50 years latter the number of cooperatives in the UK reached 1.500, and many cooperatives across Europe used the Rochdale principles for most of . This principles evolved over time throughout international communities of cooperatives.

    The model also arrived in Belgium at the second half of the 19th century. For example Vooruit in Ghent, founded in the second half of the 19th century. This cooperative, initiated by the socialist movement, started off as a bakery. It quickly grew into other groceries and other goods, and a banking services. Finally it set up a common cultural space. The goals were mutuality, fighting malnutrition, and finding a common space to organize for better working conditions, at that time extremely dangerous and precarious. In other European countries and later in the US, collective arrangements supported the electrification of rural areas, often forgotten or considered as not bringing enough economic benefits. These collective arrangements were often off-grid generation. Such were the cases in Italy and Spain using hydro power notably in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

    However, in Belgium there were not collective arrangements on energy until the end of the 20th century. This was prompted by the citizen movements calling for a reduction of nuclear plants, and looking thus for a less centralized decision making. The first cooperative was Ecopower, set up in 1991 in Flanders, the north-western Flemish speaking region of Belgium. It started with a small water mill as the basis for off-grid electricity generation before the liberalization of the Belgian electricity market with took place in the early 2000’s. This cooperative played a key role in the development of cooperatives in Belgium and Europe, as well as in the political arena.

    Ecopower grew to become part of the electricity markets when they liberalised, and is now supplying 1.7% of the Belgian households (not all of them members of the cooperative). It also has generation overseas, for example in Chile. It has set partnerships with municipalities. On the political sphere, it set up Rescoop Belgium and Rescoop Europe in 2011, with formalization in its current status in 2013. These groups have now what is estimated half of the energy cooperatives in  Europe, are still lead by Ecopower, and are set to share knowledge and to lobby the local, regional, national and European institutions for a more favorable framework for energy communities.

    The three Belgian regions, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels are now transposing the Renewables Energy Directive, providing an ‘enabling framework’ for both renewables self-consumers and communities. The Renewable Directive requires certain principles to be followed, but it is up for the countries, or in the case of Belgium, the region to decide how this will look like in practice. Wallonia was the first region to introduce the enabling framework.

    Belgium has also seen the birth of innovative collective models for the energy transition beyond electricity supply chain. In 2015, citizens of the city of Ghent created Partago, an electric car pooling solution. It has now a fleet of just over 100 EVs, with presence in 10 Flemish municipalities. The city of Ghent followed up with their own plan for car-pooling and mobility plan, which reduced drastically the use of cars for commute and the air pollution in the city, amongst others. Ghent also planning to shift their fleet of carpool towards Electric Vehicles.

    Thor park was granted a regulatory sandbox in early 2020, to explore models of energy communities that would not be possible within the current regulatory framework. The park has a set of buildings hosting different organisations, including Energyville, a collaborative enterprise between several research institutes. The buildings provide all kind of energy transition solutions, for example one of the buildings set a parking lot with solar generation, its surplus can be now shared with other buildings which do not have a suitable space for the installation of solar panels. Similarly, heat energy from the old coal mines is used in all buildings. Within the regulatory sandbox, the aim is to produce as much renewable energy as possible locally and to exchange surpluses as efficiently as possible. This approach is expected to expand into the nearby residential area in Genk.

    Moreover, municipalities in Belgium also support the collective citizens-led models. For example, the city of Eeklo launched a tender  in 2016 for a district heating network concession where bidders had to have at least 30% of citizens ownership.

    Citizens still face difficulties in, for example, finding skills, financing and even the fairest way to provide a mutual support, collective, energy transition. The current framework in Belgium is thus rather favorable and is providing more and more support from municipalities and exchange and collegiality amongst new initiatives.

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