Marie Donnelly is a Director at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy. Here she talks about empowering citizens in the energy transition and her vision of Europe’s energy future.
How can citizens become empowered in the energy transition?
It starts with information. There must be awareness in the minds of consumers about energy, and how energy enters their environment and how it operates in their environment. When they are aware, they can chose to take action.
Do you think energy awareness levels are low?
Yes I think information levels are impossibly low and that the information is difficult to understand. If people don’t have information, they can do nothing really. They are slaves to the energy system because they have no control. So the first issue is giving people information, and this information should be easily accessible and real-time information.
You should be able to look at your phone, and see how much electricity you have used in the last two hours. That’s not rocket science – but in how many places in Europe can you do that?
Second is empowerment. Simple things like, putting a thermostat on the radiator in your room so that you can adjust it accordingly. People need to be empowered to understand that they can control their expenditure levels, and that they can choose to take action. Empowering information could include access to different tariffs, to simple technologies like a thermostat. There are levels of empowerment, which can go all the way up to becoming active in the demand-response space, either themselves or through aggregators.
The third issue for me is participation. The most obvious and also most established form of participation today is through local generation. This could be PV panels on the roof or it could be energy cooperatives. The issue of participation – this could be a job for local committees, local government, etc. to start the participation, to get people involved. That is engaging people in a very positive way.
What else is driving the energy transition?
Technology is also driving the energy transition. We have new technologies coming on stream, and these new technologies are of two different types. Firstly, big technologies like wind turbines and offshore windfarms. And then small technologies – like the PV panel.
The small scale new technologies are driving the consumer side of the energy transition because it’s facilitating their participation in a way that never would have been possible before. So it’s opening up new possibilities. This is leading to the fourth issue – to self-consumption or to the "prosumer". This is where people are saying ‘maybe I could produce my own electricity and interact with the grid in a way where I use what I need and I sell when I have excess and we are symbiotic.’ And that’s also a growing trend from almost nowhere.
Who should do the job of empowering citizens?
It’s a collective job within the system to respond to the changing realities. For example, utilities won’t change their business model unless they have to. But they do have to – because of the Energy Efficiency Directive.
So policy issues and utilities have to respond. Then there are other changes – like technology. That’s opening up possibilities that perhaps we didn’t have before. And slowly but surely there are growing numbers of consumers who are also shaping the energy transition.
What do you think of ‘energy democracy’?
I think it’s a great idea. It’s the new ‘in’ phrase. And I think it’s right.
Take political democracy for example. We all have a vote. Not of all of us chose to use it. It’s the same with energy. We all are energy users. For those who want to use their vote, they should be allowed and capable and able to do so. We should have structures and mechanisms that allow them to express their position, for example, like the Citizens’ Energy Forum .
But citizens need themselves to be proactive. On the other side, utilities as well as policy makers have to be receptive and therefore we need to have structured interaction with consumers. This can happen through stakeholder groups, consumer groups, or it could be local development groups. These dialogues have to be an intrinsic part of the way we do business.
Do you see the rise of the prosumer as potentially disruptive?
That is very hard to predict. In the solar and pv space it’s more evident valuable and interesting in southern Europe. But the technologies are developing to change that. Panels are being developed that will be as effective in northern Europe. The two drivers as I see it are there. Take Spain for example, 8 or 10 years ago Spain brought in a requirement that any new build or any extensive retrofit had to install solar thermal for domestic hot water. And water is probably the one constant requirement which will remain even after energy efficiency. It’s the constant heat demand that will remain. Today it represents around 20 % of our domestic energy consumption. I do see a situation where this part of our energy use will be locally produced. And progressively as we have new builds, retrofits and the technology improves and becomes more efficient. So that is certainly disruptive, but progressively disruptive.
For electricity and using solar electricity in the home, I think there is still some way to go. PV power when it is produced is DC and some of our appliances are run on DC but have converters in them. There are adjustments coming in our system that will be technical, technological and behavioural.
I think we’re just at the start of a revolution in that space, but at this point in time I couldn’t tell you which way it is going to go. When people get their hands on innovation, there’s no saying which way it is going to go.
What are the implications for companies in the energy transition? What are the challenges or opportunities?
Companies active in the energy market will be successful if they can deliver services to their customers.
Understanding the consumer needs and demands in order to be able to deliver what the consumer wants is one big area. The second area is – not just in the energy sector – the impact of ICT. ICT and energy are very close – in terms of infrastructure and system. The ICT industry is very clued in to services. It’s not a surprise therefore that you see ICT companies becoming active in the energy space – such as Google’s purchase of Nest at the beginning of this year. A company’s strength is going to come from data management, not electron management.
Do you think strong European leadership on climate and energy will help the public perception of the value of the institutions?
Yes. If you look at the Eurobarometer surveys and people are asked ‘what does the EU do?’, environment always comes very high on the agenda. And for citizens, environment covers energy and climate. There is an acceptance that environment crosses borders and that it is a pan-European issue. I think there will be a lot of attention coming up to COP21 in December this year - and that it is very important to get a good conclusion out of that meeting.
What is your vision of Europe’s energy future?
I believe that Europe will demonstrate quite effectively that we can have a fully sustainable energy system and that we will do it sooner than 2050. It will mean very strong energy efficiency elements – and with energy certificates on buildings among other developments, we are moving in the right direction. I believe that the technologies will become widely available and cheap enough that it will become normal for people to be prosumers.
What is your message for people working locally on energy transition?
Energy transition and energy democracy – it can only happen at the local level.