Collective action energy projects put citizens at the centre of the energy transition. These include energy cooperatives, associations and ecovillages. But how do initiatives like these effectively engage with local communities, recruit and retain members over time?
The COMETS project (Collective Action Models for the Energy Transition and Social Innovation) is filling the knowledge gaps around citizen engagement in the energy transition to renewable sources by investigating and quantifying the aggregate contribution of Collective Action Initiatives (CAIs) in the energy sector at both national and European levels.
Examining case studies from Belgium, Estonia, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain, the COMETS project found that strong participation and engagement of citizens was a common thread across the initiatives. Below are some key lessons on citizen engagement and participation in energy CAIs, with a list of strategies and enablers for securing effective financial participation.
CAIs need leaders and support for leaders
Enthusiastic individuals (or small groups) were central to initiating and driving CAIs and their projects, in the case studies examined. These leaders need support, whether through training in organisational, technical or financial matters, or peer-to-peer guidance.
Securing financial participation from citizens
The vast majority of CAIs relied on some form of financial participation from local citizens. How did they go about this? The case studies point to a list of key strategies and enablers for recruiting members and achieving sufficient financial participation in the critical start-up phase of a CAI or project.
Building a community
Many CAIs are much more than energy generation, offering a range of projects and activities for members to participate in, such as ‘communities of practice’. The connection to the territory, local areas and community, and building on common social or environmental values are often mentioned as central aspects of participation and engagement. On the other hand, some CAIs found that engagement was low, due to limited time and skills on the part of board and ordinary members, or because of top-down structures in place. The organisation of regular training and knowledge-exchange sessions for members was emphasised by some as a form and means of engagement, and strong umbrella organisations, like cooperative associations, can be valuable to support this.
Finding specialised skills and knowledge
Establishing and managing CAIs are knowledge- and skill-intensive endeavours, especially when there are ambitions to upscale and diversify into advanced energy technologies, or when collaboration with commercial actors is needed. The participants in the COMETS project highlighted the value of members contributing with professional skills (e.g., technological, legal, financial, administrative, communicative). At the same time, they emphasised that CAIs frequently need to hire professional staff or firms for project development and that relevant expertise could be difficult to find. Public authorities, knowledge institutions, as well as umbrella organisations should play a stronger role in facilitating the access to such expertise for energy communities.
Promoting diversity and inclusion
Across most of the CAIs examined in the project, there was an awareness of the need to be more inclusive with respect to vulnerable groups, but few had developed systematic approaches to this.
While some CAIs have achieved gender balance in their governance bodies, there is still a need to involve more women in management functions and to increase the participation of women in CAIs. Previous studies have found that women are underrepresented in the energy sector. The findings highlight an important need for greater engagement and empowerment of women and vulnerable groups in energy communities.