Learning from IEE Sustainable Energy Communities

The context for sustainable energy has changed rapidly during the last decade – with many new players – financial institutions, national authorities and grassroots initiatives (such as the community energy movement ) engaged and active in the field. From its beginnings in 2008, the Covenant of Mayors now has 6547 signatories. Local sustainable energy planning and action is regarded as increasingly important in the fight against climate change. A new European Commission publication Evaluation of Intelligent Energy Europe Support for Sustainable Energy Communities looks at what has been achieved through the IEE program support, with important recommendations for the types of funding that have proven most effective in supporting local and regional sustainable energy action.

The Intelligent Energy Europe programme supported 34 projects focussing on developing Sustainable Energy Communities across Europe recognising that European public authorities collectively could make a very important contribution to helping the EU to meet its energy and climate targets. Building institutional capacity at a local and regional level was seen as a critical part of unlocking this potential. Public authorities at the cutting edge of sustainable energy planning were identified as key actors who could play a vital role in sharing good practices with peers yet to identify sustainable energy issues as a policy priority.

Sustainable Energy Communities (SEC) formed part of the broader Intelligent Energy Europe Programme (IEE-II) which ran from 2007 to 2013 and supported projects that aimed to remove the non-technological barriers to efficient and intelligent patterns of energy production and consumption.

The study Evaluation of Intelligent Energy Europe Support for Sustainable Energy examined the relevance and effectiveness of support provided to public authorities which collectively represent around 20% of the EU population. The study was carried out by ICF International, in association with consultants Hinicio and LDK, under the guidance of the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME), between April 2014 and March 2015.

Leading findings include evidence that the SEC projects helped to bring about a step change in the levels of understanding and operational approaches to sustainable energy planning amongst European public authorities.

Key impacts: investment, political commitment and institutional capacity

The evidence provided indicates that the projects have had a positive influence on achieving increased levels of investment in sustainable energy, leading to greater use of renewable energy, energy savings and reductions in CO2 emissions.

The study found that almost three quarters of SEC project partners (72%) indicated that projects had had a high degree of influence on increasing political commitment to sustainable energy policies in local authorities.

Examples of enhanced leadership included: the formalisation of a dedicated energy management units and teams in local authorities; and increased commitments to allocate higher shares of the new 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Funds budget to reducing CO2 emissions and improving energy efficiency.

A key achievement of the Sustainable Energy Communities is its support for the Covenant of Mayors. SEC-related activities led to a significant flow of new authorities - over 11% (649 authorities) of the 5,700 [at time of the study] total signatories - being influenced in their decision to become a Covenant of Mayors signatory.

The outcomes reported suggest significant institutionalisation of sustainable energy practices within public authorities. SEC projects helped public authorities to set sustainable energy targets, to establish political commitments, and to incorporate sustainable energy into all aspects of an authority’s processes (‘internal’ institutionalisation).

Capacity building was aided by peer to peer learning, shadowing, staff exchanges, and peer review. Over half of local authorities surveyed (57%) stated that the capability of sustainable energy planning teams within their authority had been helped , while the same number (57%) reported an increase in their understanding of sustainable energy planning tools.

Nearly two thirds of users (62%) agreed that the projects had led to a permanent increase in skills and capacities for sustainable energy planning and almost half (49%) reported a greater capacity to implement sustainable energy measures within their authorities. The SEC projects also led to public authorities developing better local networks - from energy utilities and businesses through to citizens – creating an important mechanism through which support for sustainable energy planning could be fostered. This is a crucial step to building sustainable energy into decision making and helping to reach consensus on future investments affecting all stakeholders.

Collaboration between EU initiatives

Public authorities reported that there were also synergies between the Initiative and other EU programmes (such as through the European Regional Development Fund and INTERREG) in that programme goals were seen as mutually interlinked and reinforced by each other. There are also mechanisms in place to extract the knowledge gained from project activities and share experiences with other EU initiatives working on sustainable energy.

An example of this is the joint IEE and INTERACT seminar series which, since 2011, has fostered collaboration between IEE projects and European Territorial Co-operation programmes. (Click here to check out the joint IEE-INTERACT publication Accelerating change – delivering sustainable energy solutions ).

Looking to the future

The study concludes that future projects need to play a role in building internal capacity within authorities on issues such as:

· Detailed strategic programming of planned sustainable energy projects (e.g. with defined budgets, responsibilities, timescales and indicators);

· Detailed sustainable energy project design and establishing a specific project pipeline / deal-flow;

· More effective utilisation of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) based on defined projects and delivery arrangements. With a target of 20 % use of financial instruments in the 2014-2020 ESIF programming period, it is imperative that local and regional authorities make the most of the EUR 40 billion allocation to the low carbon economy through the use of financial instruments such as guarantee funds, revolving loans and other forms of creative financing; and,

· Building understanding of funding channels and innovative financing mechanisms among public authority officers and, strengthening national contact points to support uptake of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF).

· In addition, there remains a lack of automation and sophistication with regard to energy monitoring and reporting systems. Such systems are needed in order to support the identification of opportunities for efficiency improvements and track benefits and impacts associated with sustainable energy investments.. Capacity building activities in this area are therefore still required.

Some of the challenges are already addressed under the work programme 2014-15 for the H2020 Energy Efficiency Call and will be continued to be addressed under the new work programme 2016-17 [Hyperlink to WP] such as topic EE9 and EE22-25 . However, more needs to be done to increase the capacity of public authorities to fully implement the actions identified in the SEAPs that have been developed in their thousands across Europe.

Vincent Berrutto, Head of the H2020 Energy Unit at EASME summarises: "The study demonstrates that our support to local and regional public authorities has been effective in engaging them in the energy transition. Our 34 'sustainable energy communities' projects have mobilised more than one thousand public authorities that commit and deliver on European energy policy objectives. These commitments are settling down at local level with long-term strategies and action plans that will help to build a more secure, competitive and sustainable energy system in the future."

Download the report here