Are Independent Energy Communities a Harm to Energy Equity?

With the current civilian fight against the use of polluting energy sources which release carbon emissions into the atmosphere, many local communities have sought to place the issue of energy production and distribution at the local scale. In addition, with important rising populations and lagging of national distribution of electricity to rural communities, locally built mini-grids can counter the energy accessibility issue. Citizen engagement would, in this sense, help to counter many administrative and political obstacles faced by central governments for an efficient energy transition and struggle against energy poverty.

For example, we could take the Microgrid for Blue Lake Rancheria Native American Tribe in California, where the community residents will benefit from local energy sources in various ways and the transitional energy effort remains a priority. It’s expected that carbon emissions will be reduced by at least 150 tons per year and in terms of economic benefits, building and operating the solar-storage microgrid will boost tribal clean energy jobs 10 percent and wind up saving the tribal community more than $200,000 annually in energy costs.

Another example could be the use of mini-grids in Africa to counter the lack of access to national grids. Many households take care of their energy needs themselves, using gas, paraffin, candles and petrol generators. Local energy entrepreneurs in South Africa like Zonke Energy ​(“growing social enterprise servicing off-grid communities in Cape Town with renewable energy”) offer prepaid mini-grid electricity system in response to energy isolated communities. A mini-grid is a step between the national grid-scale solution, and the single solar home solution: it’s an off-grid, electricity generation system that links and supplies anything from 10 to 150 neighbouring households. In the African context, it’s usually used in rural communities that are too far from national infrastructure to be connected to the electricity supply network. In South Africa, it’s regarded as a stop-gap until the state links a community to the grid.

 

village(Image from VOX)

Yet, what is the effect of these local initiatives on the national scale? We can argue that mini-grids are also a nuisance to the most vulnerable, as costs of energy distribution by a centralized energy grid system are carried by fewer households. For instance, in a centralised energy system such as France, the distributive nature of the energy grid and the size of the operators makes is so costs are distributed to all consumers. Thus, the central position of operators is not only a question of energy distribution and security, since they are also actors against poverty and inequality. Therefore, when households or communities engage in “energy communities” or auto-consumption, they are actually harming others by not participating in the cost of the centralised operators. While ​micro-grids ​are interesting solutions in zones not covered by national infrastructure, including in countries where electrification is not absolute for example (such as China and India), their economic pertinence is less evident in more developed countries where large connected networks have been omnipresent for decades. Denmark, with more than 50 distributors of electricity, has one of the most expensive residential electricity in Europe (0,31 €/kWh). Therefore, in the consideration of energy equity, it would be the central government’s role to consider the crucial role of central operators of energy, their size and ability to distribute to all. In addition, for countries like South Africa where the central authorities are aiming to decrease energy poverty, not participating in the national energy grid can actually diminish its reach and weigh on those who do partake in it.

In conclusion, we can underline how the solution of microgrids and independent energy communities have contradictory effects; leading to better energy access and use of renewable sources but also harming the most vulnerable to energy prices in countries where centralised infrastructures carry large scale costs. This underlines the urgent need for centralised governmental action for energy distribution and effort in transitional policies.

Zelie Marcais

Zonke Energy, Servicing Off Grid Communities with Renewable Energies
http://www.zonkeenergy.com/#myPage

« ​Les communautés énergétiques citoyennes et l’autoconsommation peuvent se révéler néfastes pour l’accès à l’électricité ​» Michel Derdevet (Enedis) et Nicolas Mazzucchi (Fondation pour la recherche stratégique), 18 mars 2019,​ Le Monde https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2019/03/18/les-communautes-energetiques-citoyennes- et-l-autoconsommation-peuvent-se-reveler-nefastes-pour-l-acces-a-l-electricite_5437721_32 32.html?xtmc=les_communautes_energetiques_citoyennes_et_l_autoconsommation_peuve nt_se_reveler_nefastes_pour_l_acces_a_l_electricite&xtcr=1

Energy transition, The Global Energiewende ​https://energytransition.org/tag/microgrids/

 

Cover Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

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