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EU Policy. Belgium to champion citizen energy at ministerial summit

Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten and the president of energy cooperatives' association Dirk Vansintjan
Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten and the president of energy cooperatives' association Dirk Vansintjan Copyright Jesse De Meulenaere / REScoop.eu
Copyright Jesse De Meulenaere / REScoop.eu
By Robert Hodgson
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Speaking exclusively to Euronews, Belgium's energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten explains why she is pushing for governments to recognise the important contribution community electricity projects and cooperatives could make to Europe's energy transition.

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Energy minister Tinne van der Straeten has told Euronews she hopes to secure inter-governmental recognition of the benefits of local energy cooperatives this week, at the last energy summit of Belgium’s six-month EU Council presidency.

Van der Straeten, a Green in Belgium’s diverse coalition government, was speaking on Tuesday (28 May) after signing an NGO manifesto calling on the next European Parliament and EU executive to promote energy communities, arguing that potential ‘energy citizens’ could invest up to €240bn in the energy transition by 2030.

Energy communities are voluntary, cooperative schemes offering a local alternative to commercial energy companies, for instance through shared ownership of a wind turbine or solar array, helping to decentralise electricity production – and, advocates argue, reduce costs, fossil fuel dependence, and increase security of supply.

“It’s very important to develop an energy policy that is inclusive from a citizen perspective, but also from a nature perspective,” van der Straeten said. “And so including citizens in energy policy is of the utmost importance.”

The minister recognised the need to bolster local distribution grids, echoing a call made last week by the European electricity industry, whose trade association Eurelectric estimates investment will need to double over the coming decades to enable the renewables roll-out implied by the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal.

Energy ministers are due to adopt tomorrow (30 May) conclusions on ‘advancing sustainable electricity grid infrastructure’, and discuss progress in the EU Green Deal and the future development of the RePowerEU plan that saw a ramping up of renewable energy targets in response to the energy crisis precipitated by Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine.

Ahead of the public exchange of views, the Belgian presidency has asked ministers to consider what “additional initiatives” could be launched to help end the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels “as soon as possible”.

For the discussion on the Green Deal, ministers have been invited to reflect on how to accelerate progress towards meeting 2030 targets reducing energy demand and increasing the share of renewables in the European system to at least 42.5%, as well voicing their views on how best to develop grid infrastructure.

Van der Straeten, who will chair the summit in Brussels, said achieving these goals would require bolstering the European grid at both the long-distance transmission and local distribution levels, and that this would require better planning and coordination as well as more direct involvement of citizens.

“I'm absolutely convinced that if we include energy communities more, we can better operate the grids, and we can be faster in developing, renewable energy,” the Belgian federal minister said.

A leaked draft of the conclusions on grid infrastructure, dated 18 May and seen by Euronews, would see the Council call on member states to ensure citizens and energy communities are closely involved in infrastructure planning, and to “revisit” procedures on grid connection and grid access capacity to ensure a “level playing” between local actors and incumbent electricity firms.

It also asks governments “to ensure that nature-inclusive design plans are in place, so as to reconcile grid development acceleration and generation, storage, flexibility and demand expansion with environmental and biodiversity protection”.

Van der Straeten said she was confident the final wording agreed on Thursday would include support for citizen energy projects, and told Euronews that the NGO behind the energy communities manifesto, REScoop.eu, had been invited to a lunch with ministers during the summit.

The Brussels-based campaign group sets out ten demands for candidates in the upcoming EU elections, including full implementation of existing rules that support the development of local energy projects, access to EU funding and exemption from the general prohibition of state aid – and EU-level strategy for their support across all areas of EU policy.

REScoop’s president Dirk Vansintjan welcomed Van der Straeten’s support, and the signal it gave of “political backing for citizen-led energy initiatives, and places citizens at the heart of the energy transition”.

The group’s AGM and forum in Prague earlier this month also saw strong interest from Ukrainian participants in developing community energy projects, Vansintjan said. “Their evaluation of what's happening there is we need to decentralise energy production because you're very vulnerable if you depend on a few large installations,” he said.

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