How social entrepreneurs catalyse the transformation of the energy system

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of European Energy Innovation, a media partner of EUSEW 2021. It is also published on the European Commission’s website of the EUSEW. EUSEW is the biggest event about sustainable energy in Europe.

As President of the European Commission, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen stressed, when discussing the Green Deal in her State of the Union address last year: “systemic change across our society, economy and industry is required to reach our global and European targets for 2030 and 2050.” Focusing on any one aspect of the energy transition increases the risk of widening global inequality and falling short on climate goals. Achieving a balanced transition requires managing sustainability, energy access and security, and economic development at the same time.

As leaders working directly with communities, and focused on creating long-term systemic change, social entrepreneurs are important allies in ensuring a just and inclusive energy transition. There are already several examples of projects involving social innovation that have successfully advanced sustainable energy and also had knock-on effects in areas such as energy security, community empowerment, rural area development and the introduction of new sustainability frameworks.

Partnering for local renewable energy production in Spain and Portugal

Although renewable energies accounted for the highest share in primary energy production in the EU in 2019, member states still import 60% of their energy. Addressing energy security by facilitating new production models is therefore crucial for a successful European energy transition.

With its “Clean Energy for all Europeans” package, the European Union opened the way for new initiatives aiming to empower smaller actors in the energy market and foster decentralised renewable energy production and consumption. In particular, the directive described in Article 21 of the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) is a great stepping-stone for collective self-consumption at the community level. 

While this is a significant opportunity for local governments, it also brings challenges surrounding implementation.

This was the case for 200 municipalities in Spain and Portugal until they collectively joined forces with social entrepreneurs in an innovative and highly collaborative project. Their goal: to put REDII into practice by democratising energy through clean tech and generating renewable energy locally.

But the ambition of the partners went beyond access to clean energy. It tackled the abandonment of rural areas by creating an associated ecosystem of community and livelihoods while working alongside mayors of towns and villages in rural areas. Collective solar photovoltaic installations were crowdfunded in the village and pay for themselves through savings on energy bills. All savings are then reinvested in building a shared circular ecosystem through e-mobility, permaculture hubs and innovation labs. The first pilot projects have been built in Spain and will be replicated at local, regional and national levels. This model is scalable and will be made available to other countries via partnerships.

Green ambitions create a sustainability blueprint through collaboration

Today in the EU, fossil fuels still dominate. Household energy use and transportation represent two of the top three end-uses of energy. Households in particular use energy for space and water heating, cooling, cooking, lighting and running electrical appliances, making the case for designing living spaces and lifestyles that are optimised for energy efficiency.

Bioregional’s BedZED village in South London is arguably the most ambitious attempt at a truly sustainable major new housing development. It was designed to achieve considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water use, and to make a green lifestyle more attainable for its residents. A great example of collaboration, BedZED brought developers, architects, engineers and a social enterprise together. After its completion in 2002, the community –which is comprised of 100 homes, office space, a college, and community facilities– became famous in the industry for its ambition.

Using learnings from the BedZED eco-village, the team at Bioregional went on to create and develop the “One Planet Living” sustainability framework with the WWF. It consists of ten simple principles and detailed goals that form a holistic approach to sustainability and net-zero. It addresses both the obvious improvements –such as zero-carbon energy, travel and transport– and the less straightforward optimisations to enable efficient energy use and quality living: materials and products, zero waste, local and sustainable food, sustainable water, land and nature, culture and community, equity and local economy, health and happiness.

Since its launch, the framework has been used by cities, tourist destinations, developers, and brands worldwide. It was even behind the greenest Olympic Games to-date in the UK in 2012. There are now 595,000 people around the world living in, working at or visiting organisations and communities with a deep commitment to One Planet Living. The knowledge and experience of Bioregional also contributed to the creation of the UN’s 12th Sustainable Development Goal , ‘responsible production and consumption’.

Social entrepreneurs as the ideal collaborator

These are just 2 examples of what can be achieved when we use systems change as a compass, and collaboration and innovation as our go-to tools. With innovative approaches, social innovation tackles the root causes of issues, using sustainable models that benefit communities, the economy, and the environment. Social entrepreneurs have collaboration in their DNA. They are allies to any stakeholder looking to make an irreversible systemic impact and to set us on the path towards a resilient energy transition that leaves no one behind.

I am a 30 something learning to explore my thoughts daily by typing them on a keyboard. I write about what I observe, learn and ponder. You can expect to read about change and love, as we all need a better self and world to live in as much as we need to take the time to appreciate the gift and journey of life.

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