EUKI Interview: Commencing Project on Energy Communities in Central Europe

by Fabia Speth, GIZ / EUKI

EUKI project COMMENCE has only recently started their work in December 2023. The project works to shape national legislation on Energy Communities (ECs) and to enable the establishment of 16 ECs in the target countries Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. As one of our newest additions to our EUKI community, we talked to Ján Karaba, the director of the project’s implementing organisation Slovak Association of Photovoltaic Industry and RES (SAPI) about how they are planning to implement their project, what obstacles they expect, and what they hope to have achieved by the end of their EUKI project.

Published: 07 May 2024

If children would ask you what it is you do in your EUKI project COMMENCE, how would you explain energy communities to them?

Imagine that the street you live on is an energy community, and every neighbour contributes to the production of electricity you use – be it your next-door neighbour or your friend’s family all the way down the street. Thanks to the community, the electricity you use daily to light your house, watch TV, play video games or heat your home comes directly from your neighbourhood, thanks to everyone who is a part of the community.

Ján Karaba

Ján Karaba is the director of the Slovak Association of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Industry (SAPI), the largest association of renewable energy sources sector in Slovakia representing more than 150 companies. He has held this position since 2019. His personal mission is to support the development of RES as a cornerstone of the country’s modern energy policy and systematically remove obstacles that hinder or block this development. Ján received his first master’s degree at the University of Economics in Prague and his second degree at the Vienna University of Technology in the field of renewable energy. He also works as the executive director of SolarEnergia, a Slovak company constructing and operating photovoltaic power plants and providing energy consulting and services related to solar PV industry.

Given the success of Austria in establishing over 1,700 energy communities since 2021, what key lessons does the COMMENCE project aim to draw from Austria’s experience, and how will these lessons be translated into actionable steps for the target countries in the Visegrad Four (V4) region?

Each target country will take an inspiration from Austria that is specific to the problem it faces and translate it into a tailor-made solution. Some of these lessons could include valuable information on appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks, enabling V4 countries to understand how Austrian policies and regulations have supported the growth of energy communities. Also, examining the community engagement strategies used in Austria can help identify effective approaches to mobilise community support and participation in clean energy initiatives in the V4 region. Furthermore, exploring the financial models and funding mechanisms used by energy communities in Austria can inform the development of sustainable funding strategies for similar projects in the V4 countries. Finally, technical solutions and capacity building and support services can help identify opportunities for similar support structures in the V4 countries.

Your project aims to contribute to a just clean energy transition by bringing citizens into the energy market and ensuring it does not have adverse effect on the most vulnerable groups. What measures will be implemented as part of EUKI project COMMENCE to ensure a socially just energy transition?

In order to ensure a socially just energy transition, the EUKI project COMMENCE can implement several measures. Their content will become clearer in the second half of the project, as we are currently analysing the status quo in the V4 countries, which should allow us to identify appropriate measures and policies. To outline at least some of their possible directions, it is a community engagement and participation that should prioritise community engagement and participation in decision-making processes related to energy projects. This includes involving local people, especially those from vulnerable groups, in the planning, implementation and monitoring of projects to ensure that their voices are heard and their concerns are addressed. It should also follow the principle of equitable access to benefits, which ensures that the gains of clean energy projects are shared fairly among all members of the community, including vulnerable groups. Finally, we should also advocate for policies and regulations that promote social justice and equity in the energy transition.

“The project will follow the principle of equitable access to benefits, which ensures that the gains of clean energy projects are shared fairly among all members of the community, including vulnerable groups.”

In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, legal frameworks on energy communities are considered to be inadequate yet they are a prerequisite to accelerate the establishment of energy communities which in turn are a key measure to achieve the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality goal. How do you plan to convince decision-makers and policymakers in the target countries to facilitate the adoption of national guidelines on energy communities and ensure alignment with broader clean energy transition objectives at the European Union level? What are the biggest obstacles you are expecting when advocating for a legal framework on energy communities on a national level?

We will present clear benefits of community energy to decision makers based on our analysis, evidence-based examples and lessons learnt abroad, mainly coming from Austria. Some of the main barriers that the COMMENCE project may encounter when advocating for a legal framework for community energy at the national level are lack of political will, complex and lengthy permitting procedures, limited awareness and understanding of the issue, and of course political and socio-economic constraints. By addressing these obstacles through strategic advocacy, stakeholder engagement, capacity building and awareness-raising, the COMMENCE project can help overcome the barriers to the adoption of national guidelines on energy communities and contribute to the broader objectives of the clean energy transition in Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It is worth noting that communication is key to any energy-related issue and therefore a clear reference to benefits will be of utmost importance for the implementation of the recommendations developed within the project.

“It is worth noting that communication is key to any energy-related issue and therefore a clear reference to benefits will be of utmost importance for the implementation of the recommendations developed within the project.”

Beyond legislative and policy interventions on a national level, what strategies or arguments does the COMMENCE project employ on a local level to raise awareness and mobilize public support for the adoption of renewable energy initiatives and the active participation of citizens in the energy market, particularly in communities where such concepts may be relatively novel or met with scepticism?

In our experience, citizens rarely have a problem with trying out something that has already been proven to work – this will be our strategy. We need to show them the examples from abroad, which would be done through field visits in Austria, and also show them that they will actually reap the benefits we are promoting. By actively communicating the benefits of the energy community concept, we want to convince even the most sceptical citizens that they will be the ones to benefit most in the end.

Your project will run until the end of 2025. What do you hope to have achieved by then? What do you hope to have changed with your project?

First, we will have developed tailor-made national guidelines for energy community founders in each V4 country and specific policy recommendations for decision-makers. In practice, we will be trying to implement them into legislation and regulatory frameworks in each country, which should accelerate the creation of at least 16 new energy communities over the lifetime of the project. We hope to speed up the so-called people-centred and inclusive clean energy transition in the region.

Thank you for the interview, Ján Karaba! We cannot wait to talk to you again at the end of your project to hear about what you have learned and achieved.

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