Solutions when sustainable energy systems are expensive

29 September 2021

Illustration: a group of people holding the earth.

Neighbourhoods and parts of society that are climate-smart are often quite expensive today. As a result, a distinction is made between those who can afford it and those who cannot afford it. The new project “Sustainable or segregated? Energy Communities for a Broad Sustainable Energy Transition” is going to take a closer look at this so that segregation can be prevented in the future.

Our knowledge needs to be increased about sustainable energy solutions in order for the whole of society to be included, not just the better-off who can afford new climate-smart solutions. High-profile demonstrations in France in 2018 shed light on this problem as people protested as they felt imposed the cost of a sustainable energy transition through increased fuel costs. This wave of protests is taken as a starting point for the project “Sustainable or segregated? Energy communities for a broad sustainable energy transition”. Project manager Klas Palm explains why the project is important:

Klas Palm
Klas Palm

– We must work on the development of an environmentally sustainable energy system and this must not happen at the expense of social sustainability. Historically, we have seen some risks around this. We must consider the social aspects of the energy technology transition in order to be able to live without conflicts or increased segregation.         

The project work will involve a study of how sustainable energy solutions can be used by people without it entailing large costs for them. More specifically, the project will investigate the idea of ​​so-called energy communities and look at how a municipality can work with energy communities in its public planning.

Explain the concept of “Energy Communities”?

– It is a type of collaboration between people to produce, distribute and store energy locally, says Klas Palm. It can be about energy in different forms. The most common way we use energy is electricity. An energy community could, for example, be a group in a neighbourhood or area that build a solar park and then produce electricity that you use in your community or sell. Another example could be that you merge into a village and finance a wind turbine that then produces electricity that you use in your community or sell. But it can also be about a group creating a car pool. Perhaps neighbourhoods or a village can merge to have their own biobank that generates biofuels or other bio-based fuel for vehicles, for example. And that is not electricity, says Klas Palm.         

The project is called “Sustainable or segregated? Energy communities for a road sustainable energy transition” and started in September 2021. It is financed through a grant of SEK 8 million SEK from Formas. This will cover the costs of a full-time doctoral student and the efforts of the 8 project participants. The project is planned to be completed in the middle of 2025. Why Uppsala University is a good place to conduct this project, Klas Palm explains like this:

– We have an excellence in several scientific disciplines such as energy technology, social construction, political science and sociology. These are some that are important for this type of research.         

Interdisciplinary research has many advantages, but can be practically difficult to achieve. Project manager Klas Palm explains that the group is based on Henrik Ottosson, who has an interest in urban development at the same time as he is a scientist and chemist. Ottosson gathered the group of researchers within the UUSI initiative “Sustainable Urban Development” to discuss sustainable energy solutions and urban development and how this can be researched.

In addition to the researchers participating in the project, the project group consists of Energy Advisors from Uppsala Municipality. Having representatives from the profession who will use the project's results is important already at the beginning of the project. This ensures that the project delivers what is relevant and important to public planners. Klas Palm comments on their participation:

– In order for it to be applicable and useful knowledge, societal actors must be involved in defining the research issues. What kind of knowledge do they need? It is incredibly important that they are involved.         

The project will look at four different examples of energy communities in Uppsala, Sigtuna and Sala / Heby. All examples are located in the region and have been selected as they are believed to be able to illustrate in different ways how a community begins, continues and ends.

How the project reaches its aim

In order to contribute with new knowledge about energy communities, the project will work to investigate what regulations and legislation look like at EU-, national- and local level. The project will also, through interviews, examine what experiences previous participants in energy communities have had, what the obstacles and enabling factors are.

– It’s about incentives among local participants and what one thinks in various issues around energy technology, says Klas Palm and continues: There will be quite a lot of interviews. Both with people who have experience of energy communities and those who have no direct personal experience. We will also look at energy consumption and energy distribution in different urban environments. So, there's a technical component to this. It is a true interdisciplinary collaboration and research with both societal aspects and energy technology aspects.