We are currently undergoing a revolution in energy production. In addition to central energy production by major energy companies, we are also seeing an increasing number of local citizens’ initiatives aimed at generating energy. The result, according to Professor of Sociology at the University of Groningen, Frans Stokman, is more sustainable energy and more social cohesion. Stokman is a member of the board of Grunneger Power, a cooperative that aims to supply Groningen with green energy.
‘The energy sector is currently undergoing a revolution similar to the one that took place in the IT industry in the 1990s, when the first primitive PCs started to appear. Fifteen years later, everyone had their own computer. This is now happening in the energy sector: people are starting to generate and distribute energy at a local level. This is not only an essential step towards making our energy supply more sustainable, it is also prompting a social revolution that is reinforcing social cohesion. In the present situation, the major energy companies decide where to invest. If they decide to build a new coal power plant in the Eemshaven seaport, then this is what will happen, even if the majority of their customers are opposed. The customers have no influence whatsoever.’
‘The advantage of a local citizens’ initiative is that consumers become co-producers. In the street where I live, we’ve set up an owners’ association so that we can generate energy together. Our first step was to install heat pumps (this saves natural gas), but we needed more electricity. So our next step involved fitting solar panels. We now want to exchange energy with each other at street level. We can do this with a ‘smart grid’, an advanced power network that KEMA is experimenting with in our region.’
‘On a larger scale, Grunneger Power wants to supply the city of Groningen and the immediate vicinity with green energy produced and stored locally. Grunneger Power supplies solar panels at discount prices and advises consumers about how to use sustainable energy. We also sell sustainable electricity and gas via a German company. All the electricity is generated by solar, wind or water power. Finally, we share our knowledge with other citizens’ initiatives to help them stand on their own two feet; everything has to be organized locally.’
‘We based our operation on the German ‘Stadtwerke’. These 700 local initiatives produce energy for 80 million people. The Stadtwerke were originally a local government initiative, which enjoyed huge support from local populations. Here in the Netherlands, most of the cooperatives are citizens’ initiatives. But in both cases, it all revolves around consumers deciding at local level how they want to organize their energy production.’
‘Local energy production increases mutual commitment and dependency. You have to make sure that everything is done correctly and that joint local interests are put before personal interests. Although this can lead to tension and exclusion in smaller villages, it isn’t really an issue when an initiative covers an area the size of Groningen. The social component is important. People themselves control how the system will develop. You see them getting together to buy solar panels in bulk. It’s only logical that they get to know each other better. Another advantage is that initiatives like this are forcing the larger energy producers to rethink their ideas. In the long term, we should see smart grids that will enable me, for example, to donate the excess energy I produce to my grandchild at university.’
‘The IT revolution took fifteen years from start to finish. I would expect the energy revolution to take about the same time, making local energy production the norm within fifteen years. The more people that become involved via the citizens’ initiatives, the faster things will proceed.’
Frans Stokman is Professor of Sociology. One of his areas of research is the transition from our current energy supply system to sustainable, decentralized energy production. Stokman looked into how far citizens were prepared to go in forming local energy cooperatives, despite not having the appropriate facilities in their homes. The research led to Stokman setting up Grunneger Power as an energy cooperative for the city of Groningen.
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