Local energy communities for a net zero society

In 2010-2019 average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest levels in human history, but the rate of growth has slowed. “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future”, said climate scientists signing latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The scenario is gloomy, but there is increasing evidence of climate action. Cities and local governments are working hard to reduce emissions by decreasing energy consumption (think of Smart Lighting and the efforts to create compact, walkable cities), implementing low-carbon mobility systems, and enhancing reforestation. With the right policies, infrastructure, and technology in place, experts estimate lifestyles and people behaviors can be changed to achieve a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – and these lifestyle changes will have a positive impact on health and wellbeing too.

A vital role in this energy transition may be played by local energy communities, groups of neighbor users who cooperate to satisfy their energy needs through local production sources.

Good news come from the US, where the transition to clean energy is generating environmental benefits and even good-paying jobs. In 2019, renewable energy investments reached 55 billion USD and clean energy jobs paid 25% more than the national median wage.

The U.S. Department of Energy has recently presented the first 22 local energy communities to receive targeted technical assistance and access federal government programs, including those included in the $1.3 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to plan and invest in smart buildings, clean energy production, resilient microgrids and energy storage, carbon capture and storage systems. The selected communities include Bakersfield (California), Columbia (South Carolina), Hennepin County (Minnesota), Jackson County (Illinois), New Orleans (Louisiana), Pittsburgh – Hill District (Pennsylvania), and Questa (New Mexico) among the others.

What about Europe? According to the EU’s 2021 State of the Energy Union report, about 2 million people are participating to more than 7,700 local energy communities and contributing up to 7% of nationally installed renewable capacities. However, the context in which local energy communities operate seems to be rather complicated.

According to a recently published report by the EU-funded eNeuron project, the lack of a comprehensive regulation in the energy sector is affecting local energy communities and delaying the EU’s progress in achieving its 2050 targets.

Uncertainty about regulatory provisions is a significant barrier for investors willing to develop infrastructure assets. The landscape is further complicated by the variety of technological solutions available on both consumer and energy community level. The report considers for instance heat storage, mentioning that over 50% of the energy consumed in the EU is used for generating heat. This should be a focus application, but its current adoption is fragmented and highly ineffective.

Local energy communities have a very important role to play in the energy transition, but there is still a long way to walk before the advent of a net zero society.

Climate change
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