Released on 23 October 2023, the European Commission’s Recommendation on Energy Poverty and accompanying Staff Working Document are unprecedented in their level of ambition to act on delivering a just, clean energy transition.

After a winter of skyrocketing energy prices linked to supply uncertainties that arose with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a summer of accelerated climate disaster, rates of energy poverty are soaring across Europe. Not surprisingly, citizen trust in governments and energy companies is plummetting.

But the push to accelerate efforts to transition to clean energy sources and reduce dependence on imports is bringing issues of energy justice to the fore.

In the Recommendation recently released, the Commission spells out — for the first time — that energy poverty concerns all countries in the European Union. While many Member States have long failed to acknowledge the seriousness and impacts of energy poverty, the Recommendation sets ambitions to address the issue once and for all. In sharp contrast to previous statements, which tended to include ill-targeted and costly ‘one-size-fits-all’ measures, the recent document prioritises long-term solutions that tackle structural inequalities.

Critically, the Recommendations recognise the importance of citizen empowerment and the role energy communities (ECs) can play in tackling energy poverty.

Unfortunately, the Recommendation confuses the distinction between activities in the energy market and ways of governing the energy system. Collective self-consumption and energy sharing are activities that can be facilitated or undertaken by a range of actors, not just energy communities (this is currently being discussed in the revisions of the Electricity Market Directive). Energy communities are a unique way of governing parts of the energy system: indeed, as they enable the participation of citizens (under structures formalised by the EU), they are the only form of collective governance within current energy systems.

While this mix-up in the actual Recommendation is regrettable, the accompanying Staff Working Document largely rectifies this confusion. It underlines the untapped potential of ECs as a “value-driven, and community-rooted business model (…) to create social cohesion, improve citizens’ understanding of the issues related to energy, climate and democracy, and trigger energy savings.”

CEES is pleased to see it is already achieving its aim of influencing policy at the EU level in that a number of its examples and results are referenced in the Staff Working Document, including the CEES survey carried out by the University of Birmingham and community projects Repowering London and Énergie Solidaire

Among those references is the acknowledgement that households in energy poverty or vulnerability remain largely underrepresented in ECs. Also, that many ECs struggle to become more inclusive towards a broader segment of society — especially those with most to gain from collective structural and empowering measures.

To leverage ECs as a vehicle for a just transition, the Recommendation and Staff Working Document urge Member States to fully and correctly transpose EU legislation on energy communities and to prioritise policies and initiatives that support the development of such collective initiatives, including by putting people over profit.

Energy poverty is eroding the resilience of communities as the impacts of climate change become more frequent and pronounced, and thus jeopardise a timely transition towards a sustainable future. With Member States preparing the final submission of their National Energy and Climate Plans, and another winter on our shared doorstep, this Recommendation comes at a crucial time.

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The CEES project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 101026972.