A municipal trend

Municipal energy strategies are full of innovative ideas for how local energy infrastructure can change to reduce local reliance on fossil fuels. The people who live in the homes in need of energy efficiency renovation, who are changing over to cleaner transportation options, and developing a new relationship to how their energy is owned, bought and sold have to be engaged: the success of municipal energy innovation relies on uptake by citizens.

To make sure that new solutions are tried and tested by citizen users, municipalities are increasingly engaging citizens in policy development to ensure that solutions will genuinely serve local benefit and be adopted.
This guide explores examples from across Europe of municipalities co-creating energy policies with citizen actors, and offers inspiration and ideas to anyone with a role in a municipality. It focuses on the engagement techniques used by municipalities to build citizen engagement with climate policy and projects.

Engagement spectrum

Our definition of community engagement is in keeping with the International Association of Public participation which identified 5 levels of public participation:

  1. Inform – To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives and/or solutions.
  2. Consult – To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
  3. Involve – To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  4. Collaborate – To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and preferred solutions.
  5. Empower – To place final decision-making power in the hands of the public.

In this document we look at a selection of examples that span the public participation spectrum from involve through to empower. The term ‘co-creation’ is used to encompass citizen engagement practices that involve, collaborate with or empower citizens within local authority decision making processes. The focus lies with these areas as they are effective tools for finding solutions that are effective, serve local benefit and are more likely to be adopted by local people.

When selecting a community engagement strategy it is important to be clear on which of these kinds of community engagement you are pursuing so the audience understands what they can expect.

Municipal approaches

Municipal and citizen co-creation practices enable cities to make the most of citizen innovation and expertise, build consensus around what a low carbon future can look like, and broaden the number of willing actors driving change on the ground. Examples of six tried and tested forms of municipal-led interventions are explored.

  • One-off events that enable a short intensive space for co-creation around a specific topic.
  • City-level councils and forums involving regular meetings for ongoing contact between cities and citizens.
  • Digital solutions that give citizens a voice in public decision making.
  • Neighbourhood engagement where engagement activities are run within residential areas.
  • Partnership with citizen-led initiatives to develop new projects and policy.
  • Citizen representation on the boards of municipal level companies.

mPOWER – by municipalities for municipalities

Running between 2018 and 2022, mPOWER is a Horizon 2020 project facilitating a peer-to-peer learning programme among more than a hundred European local public authorities, designed to replicate innovative best practices in municipal energy, and developing ambitious energy transition plans.

This guide was developed in collaboration with municipal officers participating in the mPower Exchange programme and is relevant for anyone with a role within a municipality.

In 2019–2020, twenty cities from across Europe took part in mPower Exchange. Structured around city visits, it enabled local authorities to spend face-to-face time exploring, understanding and developing new and existing energy projects. This highly participatory learning programme was focused on exchanging practical knowledge and expertise. The themes were domestic energy efficiency, local energy communities and renewables expansion.

This guide shares the knowledge and expertise of those city innovators. Whilst no single project can be replicated in full elsewhere, we believe other cities can draw inspiration from these experiences to create solutions suited to local context and conditions.

1. One off events

In this section we explore stories of municipalities that have used one-off-events to co-create energy policy.

Citizen Assemblies: Brent, UK

In Brent the municipality kicked off their climate citizen engagement work with a Citizen Assembly.
Public participation scale: Involve

Photo Credit: Steve Cadman on Flickr

Brent is a London borough located in the northwest of the city. Responding to public pressure and the global and local threat posed by climate change, the borough declared a climate emergency in 2019. Seeing the UK government’s aim to achieve net-zero by 2050 as lacking in ambition, Brent aims to achieve borough-wide carbon neutrality by 2030. Tackling carbon emissions from homes is the biggest challenge. These make up 43% of Brent’s direct carbon footprint, with commercial and industrial buildings (35%) and road transport (22%) following. The council also wants to encourage a broader shift towards more sustainable behaviour, to address consumption and transportation beyond the borough.

The council collaborated with residents and communities by running a Climate Assembly. This was set up to determine the council’s strategy around five themes; consumption, resource and waste; transport; homes, buildings and the built environment; nature and green space; and supporting communities. You can read more about Brent and their climate strategy on their website.

Citizens shaping climate policy

Brent is one of several UK councils that have used Climate Assemblies to give citizens power over shaping local climate policy. These assemblies provide a space for up to 150 or so residents to learn, discuss, and debate their cities’ responses to the climate challenge. The assemblies usually take place over a series of events, totalling around 25 hours, with all attendees being paid for their involvement. The diversity of the local population is reflected by randomly selecting members in line with the profile of the area. Throughout the events, the members hear from a range of speakers who support the group to define a series of recommendations. A separate panel of stakeholders meet alongside this to check the process is balanced and unbiased.

In Brent the Council used Council budgets to commission Traverse, a London-based consultancy that specialises in delivering engagement processes. Travers was asked to recruit, design and facilitate a community consultation process to help shape their climate strategy.

They began by setting up an Advisory Board to help define the process, content and structure. Board members included a wide range of expertise spanning academic, technical and social disciplines. Together they set a central research question for the assembly to explore: ‘how can we work together to limit climate change and its impact while protecting our environment, our health and our wellbeing? The question would be answered in relation to the perspective of four different stakeholders, the council, businesses, other organisations, and  individuals. From this base the Advisory Board set on an overall structure to guide the Assembly towards a collective answer.


They settled on two ways for local people to share their thoughts; a Climate Assembly for 50 people, and a micrositehosted by Commonplace for wider public consultation. Climate Assembly representatives were recruited via street recruitment, from previous lists of Council consultees, and using social media. The final membership of the Assembly was selected based on age, gender, ethnicity, social-economic background and area of residence, in line with local demographic data.

Once formed, the Assembly met over three Saturdays to develop its recommendations. At the first session, the members were introduced to each another, developed a working agreement, and learned about climate change issues via information posters on climate science, local and global climate issues, and current regulation. Building on this the second session focused on members sharing their ideas for responding to climate change. They considered a wide range of themes including consultation, resources and waste, transport; existing housing and buildings, nature & biodiversity, planning policy and new development, adapting to global heating, renewable energy and politics.

They also developed a range of criteria against which they could assess the proposed options, settling on cost vs. impact, achievability, fair distribution of costs and burdens, wider benefits and transparency as being the most important. At the final meeting they developed, reviewed and refined the options before voting on 10 final recommendations to be taken on by the Council, either as a direct initiator or acting to support neighbourhood, individuals or businesses to take action. The three most popular measures were calls to improve waste collection and biodegradable bin bags, support use of public transport and improve insulation and cladding of local buildings. The input of the 326 residents that submitted their responses via the micro-site was also considered within the final report, before being presented to the Council. For a full summary of the process read Traverse’s report.

The Brent process did experience some challenges. In their end of project analysis exercise, the team raised questions around how best to equip participants with enough of a grounding in the wide range of actors, time frames and geographies involved in climate change issues, without overwhelming them. Retention in between sessions and reductive voting exercises limiting the space for conversation were also noted. With that said, the process did receive praise from participants. And during the final workshop, there were requests for an ongoing space for citizen participation in climate strategy formation and for a similar process for other social issues.

Brent Council responds

The recommendations presented by the Assembly were included within the Council’s 5-year climate strategy, with clear budgets assigned to first year actions. The Council has pledged to improve waste collection and recycling by offering free food bin caddies and setting up textile and electronic goods initiatives. It has made a commitment to retrofit Council-owned tower block housing, with a long term aim of improving energy efficiency across their housing stock to an average of EPC B by 2030. Transport commitments largely focus on increasing walking and cycling options, over the recommendation for additional support for public transport.

The story of community participation in climate change doesn’t end here. Since the Climate Assemblies closed, Brent Council continues to find ways to keep up the dialogue. Most recently, the Council launched a new climate fund that will put the decision of how to spend £500k of Council money into the hands of residents. Through a process known as ‘Participatory Budgeting’ people will be able to submit project ideas and vote on how to split the money, on “YOU Decide Decision Day”.

Adapted from research conducted by Laura Williams

Finance Impact More information & sources
Financed by council budgets
  • 50 people providing input via direct citizen assembly model
  • 326 residents submitted responses online
  • Citizen assembly recommendations included in the Council’s 5-year climate strategy
  • Citizen engagement techniques seen as a useful tool for future climate policy development by the Council

Le Grand Debat: Nantes, France

Citizen oversight panel oversees the public engagement process in Nantes.
Public participation scale:
– Involve (participatory process)
– Empower (citizen commission / citizen led-projects)

Photo Credit: Ross Helen on Shuttershock

Nantes is the sixth largest city in France, situated on the Loire river. The metropolis of Nantes is made up of 24 municipalities. The city adopted an ecological framework in 2007 to reduce greenhouse gases and promote the energy transition. Nantes Métropole has been involved in the Covenant of Mayors since 2008, with the objective of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, and tripling its local renewable energy production by 2030.

Creating a common vision

In 2016, the metropolis of Nantes hosted ‘Le Grand Debat’ to open up local energy debates to citizens, municipalities, companies, NGOs and other stakeholders through a participatory process. Over the course of seven months, Nantes engaged 53,000 people and 270 organisations to explore how a local energy transition could benefit all local people, shape a shared roadmap, and build a wide platform of actors to support climate activity within the city.

The concept was initially championed by Mayor Johanna Rolland and a group of 23 mayors from the Metropolitan Council. She saw the opportunity to accelerate city-wide carbon saving through the creation of a common vision across their citizenship. They took the idea for the “Le Grand Debat” (The Great Debate) to a council vote and received wide-ranging support.

A group of five civil servants took charge of coordinating the activities. Drawing on co-financing from the Regional Finance Development Fund, they organised 80 events across all 24 Nantes municipalities. Events were accompanied by a social media campaign, #NantesTransitions where residents could share suggestions with the Council. The campaign was also given a physical presence in the streets through the use of a pink container that travelled through the region, providing further opportunities for engagement.

Citizen oversight and transparency of process were given prominence through an independent commission of four citizens that took charge of monitoring the process and producing the final event report.

Citizen-led actions

One of the main results of the initiative consisted in the development of ideas for new experimental actions and projects by 500 citizens, to accelerate the energy transition in Nantes’ region. The activities resulted in the launch of 10 crowdfunding campaigns, the development of 5 new projects for investigation and action, evaluation of 12 projects led by the Nantes Metropolis, and the creation of an energy conservation guide

The final report of “Le Grand Debat” on the energy transition was published in September 2017. The report led to the citizen-only commission calling for a shared roadmap to be produced jointly by the Metropolitan Council and local stakeholders.

The roadmap, “Nantes, metropolis in transition”, was adopted unanimously by the Council on February 16, 2018. It considers an energy transition that provides benefits to all the inhabitants. Mobility and housing issues, a commitment to transition towards local renewables, and promotion of social equality are embedded within the roadmap.  In total 15 ambitions were agreed and 33 commitments were made, representing the starting point of a series of actions to be developed with the inhabitants and actors in the area.

Sharing her sense of achievement around the impact of ‘Le Grand Debat’ Mayor Johanna Rolland said that “The roadmap  affirms a collective ambition that builds on the singularities of an energy transition in Nantes, as they clearly emerged in the debate: a 100% citizen transition, a transition for the benefit of all residents, a transition that values local resources.”

Adapted from research conducted by Laura Williams

Finance Impact More information & sources
By the Regional Development Fund
  • 53,000 engaged in consultation process
  • 500 citizens developed new initiatives
  • 10 crowdfunding campaigns
  • 5 citizen-led projects
  • Road map formed

2. Councils and Forums

This section shares examples of city-level councils and forums that create regular meeting space for ongoing contact between city representatives and citizens.

Open spaces: Cadiz, Spain

Public participation scale: Collaborate

Photo Credit: dkatana on Pixabay

As in many other Spanish cities, two new left parties took over the local government of Cádiz in May 2015. The city faced many economic and social problems such as high levels of debt and unemployment. The council’s energy management was inefficient, there was no commitment to renewable energy, and nothing had been done to reduce energy poverty in recent years.

Opening up

Cádiz Discussion

Photo Credit: Cadiz Municipality

Opening up the local energy transition for democratic debate has been a pillar of Cadiz’s energy transition from the start. Shortly after the 2015 election win, Cadiz employed journalist and campaigner Alba del Campo to advise on the municipal strategy for the energy transition, to open up energy discussions to local people.

The process began with the city holding a conference on the energy transition. As a result of the recommendations from this event, the municipality created an open Energy Transition Committee (MTEC), where organisations, specialists and employees from the municipal energy company Eléctrica de Cádiz, academics and energy cooperatives work together. The MTEC sets priorities which guide next steps. These include commitments to reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency and renewable energy use in public buildings, take advantage of the high solar power potential (Cádiz has 3,000 hours of sun each year), end energy poverty, foster a democratic and just transition for citizens and create green jobs for workers. A separate working group to tackle fuel poverty was also established on the same open participatory basis.

The committees provide permanent open spaces where citizens affected by energy issues, civil society organisations, specialists, academics and teachers, employees from the municipal energy company Eléctrica de Cádiz, and energy cooperatives can work collaboratively to set priorities which guide next steps. Regular members of the Energy Transition Committee meet twice a month to cover a wide range of topics, with specialists invited to contribute on specific topics. Decisions are made by consensus.

The regular nature of these meetings has given the municipality an opportunity to experiment and build skills and capacity in public participation practices. Over the four years that the committee has met they’ve tried out a variety of methods to encourage debate and discussion. The transition energy table has been described as “a laboratory of participation” where finding ways to involve people is a regular priority.’

One of the Energy Transition Committee’s first actions was to conduct a public inquiry through 450 face-to-face interviews – the first of this kind ever done in Spain – about basic energy knowledge. Interviewees said that they didn’t understand their energy bills. More than 90% of participants also voiced their wish for a 100% renewable model in Cádiz. This finding was backed up by the attendees of the Energy Transition Committee. As a result the municipality decided to transform Eléctrica de Cádiz, the largest energy company in Spain, into a renewable energy company, generating renewable energy in the city, and supplying renewable energy to its customers.

MTEC continues to set priorities and guide next steps for the municipality:

  • Reduce energy consumption
  • Increase energy efficiency and renewable energy use in public buildings
  • Take advantage of the high solar power potential (Cádiz has 3,000 hours of sun each year)
  • End energy poverty
  • Foster a democratic and just transition for citizens and create green jobs for workers.

The Committee also organises awareness raising activities to build wider momentum for the renewable energy transition, through workshops, conferences and local fairs.

When asked to reflect on what makes the roundtable such an effective tool for participation Alba shared that ‘people come because they see that we build the things that they want us to build… It’s not just talking about talking, we make them happen’.

Energy Poverty Committee

Cádiz Award

Photo Credit: Cadiz Municipality

Alongside the MCTE an additional committee called the Roundtable against Energy Poverty (MCPE) was set-up to respond to citizen concerns around the affordability of energy for vulnerable families. Alba shared that ‘Spain faces high levels of energy poverty, while multinational energy corporations continue to extract profits’. 15% of the population live in homes that are not adequately heated, often because their power has been cut off due to unpaid bills.

In October 2015, the municipal government unanimously approved what the citizen movement had been calling for in response to this issue: a social discount that would reduce the cost of energy for vulnerable families. Within the proposal a commitment to co-producing the social discount through an open process was included and MCPE formed to oversee this process.

The new working group consisted of civil society organisations, energy specialists, the department of social affairs of the municipality, political parties, people affected by energy poverty, and employees of Eléctrica de Cádiz. The open round table met for three years, organising around consensus-based decision making and consultations between the different actors. They assessed the problem identifying how the national government’s energy grants were failing to reach low-income families. Only a few large energy companies were found to benefit. The programme does not apply to low-income customers of smaller suppliers. In order to change this, the MCPE defined a series of criteria to assess the subsidy, alongside a requirement for all beneficiaries to receive energy efficiency training. For the social discount MCPE proposed a grant that Eléctrica de Cádiz could offer its customers.

The result was a grant system that not only cuts bills for those facing financial challenges, but takes into account individual households’ specific energy needs, while providing support and training in energy management. A team including social workers and technicians help to identify the level of municipal financed energy grant for each vulnerable customer, which is included on the public companies energy invoice. This discount is expected to guarantee access to energy for more than 2,000 families each year.

Adapted from a blog written by Alba del Campo, Cadiz Municipality

Reimagining Energy Boards: Ghent, Belgium

In Ghent the municipality established a highly successful independent citizen-led Food Council The city is drawing on the learnings of the Food Council to re-engage citizens in its environmental policy-making
Public participation scale: Empower

Photo Credit: Bas Bogaerts on Shuttershock

Ghent is the third-largest city in Belgium, located in the East Flanders province. There are 263,460 people living within the 156km2 municipal area. As a port town Ghent encompasses 169 different nationalities, and the city has a large student population (equal to almost one-third of the population) entering and leaving the city every week. Adapting to the changing needs of the fluctuating population is essential for maintaining city balance.

The city’s climate journey began back in 2009 when they signed the Covenant of Mayors Agreement. Their long-term aim of becoming a climate-neutral city by 2050, is broken down into short-term commitments to reduce local carbon emissions by 20% by 2020 and 40% by 2040. Seven core themes underlie their strategy, including energy efficiency in homes, commercial buildings, low carbon transport, sustainable industry, food, circular economy and climate adaptation, with in place for each to guide city-wide activity. For example, on renewable energy the city has calculated the need to install 80mw of solar energy and 100 mw of wind by 2030 alongside a programme of activity that will show how the municipality will achieve their goal.

Developing the participation structure

Photo Credit: City of Ghent

When speaking to representatives of Ghent’s municipal energy team during the mPower programme, a commitment to seeing citizens as essential partners for accelerating the local transition shone through. Citizens are encouraged to share their ideas for how to address the climate challenge at home and within their community. The municipality turns these ideas into a patchwork of projects specific to each district area, combined into one central storyline of positive local change. A commitment to inclusive transition underlies their work, with routes for tackling energy vulnerability included within their work with existing local energy communities and cooperatives, energy advice hubs and new projects.

Ghent City Council has been taking steps to improve their Environmental Advisory Board. The board was set up in 1991 as a space for citizens to advise on environmental issues. However, the fixed composition of the board was limiting its ability to draw on relevant expertise and represent the city as a whole, hence the need for change.

To give new life to the board Ghent City Council drew inspiration for their established and successful citizen-led Food Council.

The Food Council serves an important role within the municipality’s wider decarbonisation work. The Council works with the principle of co-production, involving different stakeholders and initiatives across the city in strategy setting and implementation.

The municipality has taken on a variety of roles in the Food Council’s work as required: as connector between stakeholders, as enabler and facilitator for developing initiatives and, where there are gaps, also as an initiator and service provider. To balance power dynamics, an external neutral facilitator is employed.

The Council developed their internal capacity in engagement, communication, multi-stakeholder co-production and agile and iterative project development to support the Council. Political buy-in and an openness to take risks, experiment and let go of control helped to build a supportive relationship with the wider city administration. Ring fencing finance that could be spent on engagement work and project support was also important.

Ghent’s Urban food policy was established in 2013   to strengthen local supply chains, increase sustainable production and consumption, improve access to food and decrease waste. The Food Council has developed the policy and implementation strategy which it continues to refine. The council has representation in wider municipal discussions, but is independent in their decision making. After an initial phase of working together the group were given budget authority, which it has used to fund innovative initiatives.

Commenting on the value of active citizen participation the Food Policy Coordinator, Katrien Vibeke, says that ‘The importance of co-creation for me is clear. Where we haven’t applied it, we have the least chances of success. It’s a key factor to success in that it means that the solution you put out there really addresses the local needs.’

Learning from this successful co-creation model, Ghent has worked to build up new membership and roles for the Environmental Advisory Board. The Board has run a campaign to ask members to recruit citizens and experts to become members of the environmental advisory board. People were initially asked to share their interest and expertise. The city will now develop a policy with six task forces including energy that will work together to make recommendations on their new climate plan.

Adapted from mPower expert witness sessions during project study visit to Ghent

Finance Impact More information
From municipal budgets The food council runs a range of actions including a school training scheme for food growing, “veggie day” promotions and launched a food distribution platform which provides food to 57,000 people in need

3. Online

This section shares examples of online forms of engagement.

Decidim: Barcelona, Spain

Online platform tool shapes municipal decision making in Barcelona
Public participation scale: Involve

Photo Credit: City of Barcelona

Barcelona has developed a virtual participative platform Decidim, where citizens can propose, debate and back new proposals in response to the big challenges facing the city.

The open-source platform was developed as a response to the demands from the anti-austerity movement that put the municipal government into power, for visibility within public discussions. The demand came out of a public municipal action planning exercise after the elections in 2015, and written into public policy. The desire was to change the dynamics between municipality and citizens, giving local people ‘a true voice’ in consultations. The online tool would provide a clear line of communication between civil society and public office.

The municipality, supported under the leadership of Chief Technology Officer of Barcelona Francesca Bria, dedicated1.5 million euros towards the initiative. A group of public and private sector partners, including the Open University of Catalonia and two Barcelona-based developer firms, Codegram and aLabsm set up the platform, called Decidim. The tool can cover a wide variety of participation exercises. Features include mechanisms for strategic planning, participatory budgeting, initiatives and citizen consultations and assemblies.

Barcelona City Council first used the tool to help shape the 2016 – 2019 Municipal Action Plan. Through Decidim, residents were invited to submit proposals that they would like to see in Barcelona. Residents did not hold back. A total of 10,860 submissions were put forward by 40,000 residents, with 8,142 approved. The proposals were then synthesised to find common themes. On climate and energy, calls to create a municipal energy retailer, improve walking and cycling infrastructure and improve air quality were amongst the ideas included in the final plan.

The Council does not see Decidim as the only way of engaging citizens. It is a tool to enhance digital participation, but not at the expense of the traditional ways that civil society actors have shaped public policy. The Council has a separate multi-disciplinary municipal department which organises neighbourhood assemblies and runs training sessions and open events to empower citizens, particularly in underrepresented communities. During the development of the 2016-2019 Action Plan, the department organised a total of 412 face-to-face events, reaching 13,614 people.

Today Decidim is run by an association as a commons, free for any city or organisation to use. The Cities of Helsinki, Tampere, Mexico and Pamplona have already picked up the platform as a tool to support their processes.

Adapted from research conducted by Laura Williams (mPower)

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • Euro 1.5 millions starting capital (includes software development costs)
  • From municipal budget
40,000 residents engaged in forming the Municipal Action Plan

Frankfurt asks me: Frankfurt, German

Frankfurt launches an app to encourage on-going exchanges with local residents.
Participation level: Involve

Photo Credit: Leonhard_Niederwinner on Pixabay

Frankfurt am Main is one of the more densely built-up cities in Germany, known for its banking sector and home to one of Europe’s largest airports. The city is also the centre of Germany’s digital logistics: 80% of the country’s Internet traffic runs via servers in Frankfurt. The city has more than 750,000 inhabitants and is growing rapidly.

It is vital for both citizens and the environment that Frankfurt becomes more climate friendly. The municipality’s goal is a 95% carbon emissions reduction by 2050 compared to 2010, and a halving of energy use in the same time frame. The administration has put multiple plans and processes in place to move the city onto the right pathway, including a ‘Master Plan 100% climate protection’.

There is a special emphasis on involving residents in the city’s transformation. For ongoing exchange with residents, the city has launched an app called Frankfurt Fragt Mich, (Frankfurt asks me) in which citizens can directly connect to the municipality. Anyone can voice a complaint or an idea on various topics, one of which is climate action. If the idea finds 200 supporters within eight weeks, then the municipality takes up the issue.

Another participatory measure is the neighbourhood programme, where residents can apply for grants of up to €2,000 to put their climate protection ideas into practice. Residents can apply for grants to cover material expenses for projects that contribute to the common good and lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions in their neighbourhood.

By the City of Frankfurt & Josephine Valeske (TNI)

4. Neighbourhood engagement

In this section we explore stories of municipalities that have hosted co-creation events at the neighbourhood level.

Creating a cooperative partner: Plymouth, UK

Plymouth city council seeds, and collaborates with, local energy cooperatives.
Participation level: Collaborate

Photo Credit: Inspired Images on Pixabay

Plymouth is a city of 260,000 inhabitants in the county of Devon, Southwest England. Located on a large natural harbour, the city has long been one of the country’s most important ports. Its manufacturing sector and the harbour – once a transit port for migration to the Americas – still dominate the city’s economy and landscape. In recent decades, the city has faced a number of challenges: declining productivity, falling wages, and increasing poverty and inequality. The dockyard that once employed tens of thousands of people now only employs 2,500.

Citizens have experienced an erosion of economic stability, exacerbated by severe cuts in government spending on social support.  In some areas the child poverty rate is 40%. There are districts where 35% or residents live in fuel poverty, which in turn impacts mental and physical health and worsens stress, including financial stress as people face unmanageable debts. Mental health in the city is poor and there is a high suicide rate.

Plymouth’s climate change strategy takes on the breadth of challenges facing the city. It focuses on nurturing community efforts to improve energy efficiency, and address social issues alongside carbon reduction.

New ideas

In 2012 Plymouth City Council’s (PCCs) Low Carbon Team came up with an ambitious idea to transform how energy is bought, used and generated in Plymouth. They wanted to set up a community energy organisation that could provide citizens and local businesses with a clear channel for working in collaboration with the council in tackling climate change and fighting fuel poverty. Reacting to the growing public frustration and distrust in the UK’s ‘big six’ energy suppliers, there was a growing sense within the council of the need for change. One local councillor, in particular, championed the idea. They argued that a member-led organisation that could invite local people in as co-authors of new energy services could help to build a fairer and trusted alternative.

With the political administration supporting the idea, the council began taking steps to enable the process of setting up an Energy Community. Municipal staff time was released to recruit one hundred founding members and volunteer directors, develop a business plan and run  studies to locate potential sites for a community-owned solar energy project.


The result of these combined efforts saw the birth of Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) in 2014, a new cooperative community benefit society. The organisation, which is owned by its members and runs for the benefit of the community, seeks to increase local ownership of energy infrastructure and undertake projects to support households that are excluded from the energy system through fuel poverty.

Photo Credit: Plymouth Energy Community

Between the combined efforts of the 12 staff, 200 members with one hundred active volunteers, the cooperative plays a vital role in encouraging residents to take charge of energy matters. Membership is open to any individual or organisation that supports PEC’s aims. Members are invited to participate in the day-to-day running of PEC through a regular events programmme, such as their weekly energy advice drop in, and the opportunity to be elected as one of the organisation’s eight non-executive directors. Voting takes place on a one-member-one-vote basis. The relationship between the council, the PEC staff team and members are cemented through ongoing municipal staff time offered to PEC via a service level agreement.

The nature of this set-up allows conversation on new citizen energy needs between PEC and the Council. This has been particularly noticeable during recent crises. When the covid pandemic increased the precarity of many Plymouth residents, PEC was able to signpost new support for energy vulnerable citizens via their networks. And as the 2021 energy crisis increased energy bills, PEC established a Household Support Fund enabling frontline workers and energy vulnerable people with grants to help them meet their winter energy bills.

By Justin Bear, Plymouth City Council

More information
Plymouth city profile

Smarter Together: Munich, Germany

Munich turns one district into a space for data-assisted energy transition, discussion and experimentation.
Participation level: Involve

Picture > Credit: Stefan Kühn on wikipedia commons

Munich is the capital and most populous city of the federal-state of Bavaria, Germany.  With a population of around 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Germany. As a city it is ambitious in its aims, with a high-level goal of becomingclimate neutral by 2035.

In ‘Smarter Together’ Munich has experimented with an innovative citizen co-creation model by turning one district into a site for discussion and experimentation on energy transition matters. The idea was to put data and urban planning expertise into the hands of local people to help shape smart energy solutions that would reduce neighbourhood level CO2 emissions by at least 20%, whilst improving the quality of living. Drawing on €6.85 million of Horizon 2020 funding, Munich pledged to invest a total of around €20 million in one district. The project was managed by MGS (Munich Society for Urban Renewal), a municipal company.

Choosing the district

The Neuaubing-Westkreuz/Frieburg district was chosen as a good place to trial the model. Located on the western edge of the city, the district is a home to 30,000 residents from mixed socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. The relatively low energy-efficiency standards of the 1960s and 1970s residential properties made the Neuaubing-Westkreuz area an ideal place to explore energy efficiency, e-mobility and renewable energy opportunities alongside existing residents.

The project used a variety of community engagement techniques to begin the dialogue. A communications campaign was launched, with its own website, newspaper and social media presence. To host public discussions a former fitness centre was taken over as an information hub where residents could engage with the project team, hear about the project’s data findings and collaborate on solutions. Over the course of four years, 25 discrete workshops took place in the centre, with 4,000 people engaging over the period.

Neighbourhood transition

New mobility, technology and energy projects flowed from this process. Eight mobility hubs where residents could trial sharing services with traditional public transport were established. At the hubs residents could trail etrikes, ebikes, ecars, charging infrastructure and digital information points, allowing them to experience the connection between physical and digital forms of mobility. New street lights that could monitor mobility, traffic flows and air quality were installed with the data produced made public through the SmartCity app. Instead of the project team making decisions, the public data was used by individuals as a springboard to make their own decisions on travel priorities. The data also informed and stimulated  public debate around the best course of action to tackle the emergent issues.

On energy efficiency, 43,000 m2 of residential living space were renovated to a high standard.

Verena Stoppel, who worked as one of the project coordinators, explained how important co-production had been. “Smart city solutions deal more with questions of governance and new processes than high technology. The technology solutions are already well known.“ The Smarter Together project provided an effective way of drawing attention to the governance and processes in a way that included those whose lives new systems are being established to benefit.

Adapted from mPower podcast interview with Verena Stoppel and Bernhard Klassen from Munich

Finance Impact More information & sources
  • EUR 6.85 million
  • From Horizon 2020 funding
  • 8 mobility hubs established
  • 43,000 m2 of residential living space renovated

City Labs: Mannheim, Germany

Mannheim launches a city-lab to aid city-citizen social innovation collaborations.
Participation level: Involve

The City of Mannheim in south-western Germany lies close to two rivers, the Rhine and the Neckar, and is known for its heavy industry. The city faces an urgent climate challenge. It has committed to becoming climate neutral by 2050 and is looking into whether this can be achieved even sooner. To achieve this goal the city is developing a Climate Action Plan 2030, climate impact adaptation measures, and the provision of funding in cooperation with the Climate Action Agency. Together, they offer consultation, subsidies and a newly created City Lab where residents can get involved in the decision-making process.

Currently, Mannheim is facing several challenges to reduce its emissions: Its coal-fired power plant Grosskraftwerk Mannheim (GKM) supplies not only the city’s 320,000 residents, but also neighbouring cities – a total of 2.5 million households receive power from the plant, and 160,000 are connected to its district heat system. Furthermore, Mannheim is characterised by heavy industry, with high energy use that needs to be decreased for realistic chances of achieving climate neutrality.

Nonetheless, promising projections have been made. A recent study by the Wuppertal Institute suggested that Mannheim can reduce its energy-related CO2 emissions by 99% compared to today’s levels by 2050, and thus meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement at the municipal level. The largest share of this reduction would be achieved by decommissioning the GKM by 2033. There is realistic potential for generating almost 1 TWh of green electricity within the city limits. The sources would be solar energy supported by river heat pumps, waste-fuelled as well as biomass heating and power plants, and wind generation. The city would however shift from being a net exporter of electricity to being a net importer.

Social Innovation

Together with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, Mannheim is one of six cities participating in the EU project SONNET (Social Innovation in Energy Transitions). The city is  exploring  how social innovations can support the energy transition. To do this, Mannheim established a City Lab to develop and test new organisational governance and participation processes. This innovation space is important, because social innovations start by changing social relationships.  The City Lab provides a space for local stakeholders such as the District Management, the Consumer Centre, businesses, local associations and citizens to connect, participate in decision-making processes and receive support from the City of Mannheim.

The City Lab is located in Neckarstadt-West, an area that is often disadvantaged and known to be struggling with social problems, but also has a lot of creative potential.

The process was continued despite the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic: A pop-up event was conducted in September 2020 in a safe, hygienic way in a public space, and passers-by were invited to discuss existing ideas and contribute new views.

The SONNET project and the ideas arising from the City Lab were presented and discussed in numerous networks and meetings. The results were incorporated into a virtual interactive neighbourhood discussion in December 2020. More than 50 participants further developed the ideas for the local, social energy transition. In several small groups, lively discussions were held on the topics of environmentally friendly mobility, promotion, education and participation, and energy and housing.

To enable continuing citizen participation despite the ongoing pandemic, the City Lab established the Mobile Green Room® in Neckarstadt-West from May to August 2021. This provided a stage for local organisations and associations to recruit supporters for their actions to implement the energy transition on a local level. In addition, there is an online participation portal where the ideas developed can be voted on, support can be offered and new perspectives can be brought in. The SONNET closing event took place in July 2021, and ideas were integrated into the Mannheim Climate Action Plan 2030 that is currently being developed.

By Sabrina Hoffmann and Viktoria Reith, Climate Strategy Office, City of Mannheim

5. Partnering with citizen-led initiatives

Getting off gas: Horst aan des Maas

Municipal government partners with a local resident group to form and found an ambitious low carbon heat strategy.
Public participation scale: Collaborate

The municipality of Horst aan de Maas is situated in south-eastern Netherlands, close to the German border. In 2020 it adopted a new local sustainability policy with four main goals: Horst aan de Maas aims to be a fully climate neutral, climate proof, circular-resource and nature-friendly town by 2050.

The population of about 42,000 citizens is highly involved in a number of sustainability projects, along with local businesses and other stakeholders. In 2019 the town won a European Green Leaf Award in recognition of their collective achievements.

Tackling heat together

Photo Credit: Hoorst aan de Maas municipality

The Dutch national climate agreement requires all buildings to be heated without using natural (fossil) gas by 2050. Since almost 90% of Dutch houses use gas for heating this is a huge undertaking. For Horst aan de Maas it means that more than 15,000 houses need to be retrofitted over 30 years, or between 500 and 600 houses each year. The municipality has been developing a Heat Transition Plan, which will set out the best alternatives to natural gas for the area.

There have been local projects with geothermal heat, but uncertainty about the risk of earthquakes in this region has put a stop to this. Therefore the solution for most homes and buildings in Horst aan de Maas will be to use electricity for cooking, vastly improve the energy efficiency of the buildings, and then switch to using heat pumps. The Heat Transition Plan will be updated every two years, in order to adapt to technological innovations or other developments – including those originating from groups of citizens.

Tiny village with big ambitions

One group of citizens driving local decarbonisation is the population of the 450-household village of Kronenberg in the Horst aan de Maas municipal district. In 2015 residents  founded ‘EnergieKronenberg’, aiming to make the village energy neutral by 2030. A joint study by the Kronenberg village foundation and Horst aan des Maas municipality showed that ‘all electric’ is the best route to decarbonise the village. But this scenario will not be easy to implement, because every individual homeowner needs to invest in energy measures.

The next step was for the foundation and the municipality to analyse small-scale collective solutions, such as two houses sharing a heat pump. The partnership plans to develop technical specifications and then estimate the cost of electrification of all buildings in the village.

The best implementation strategy will then be decided in close consultation with the citizens of Kronenberg – their support is needed for the plans to progress. Options could include individual step-by-step plans that follow the natural cycle of home maintenance and replacement of equipment, or it could be a co-ordinated strategy with tighter management, focused on collective purchasing power and efficient workflows.

By Sonja Coolen, Horst aan de Maas municipality

Impact More information & sources
  • Home decision makers directly involved in shaping low carbon heat policy.
  • Opportunity to explore innovative low carbon heating solutions of two houses sharing a heat pump
Hoorst aan des Maas city profile

Adopting community-led initiatives: Meath, Ireland

Meath Council partners with Batterstown resident energy group to implement energy masterplan.
Participation level: Collaborate

Photo Credit : Thomas Nugent on Geography

Community spirit has always been strong in Ireland; from pre-electrification days where farmers would help each other bring in the harvest to modern times where communities work together to create a cleaner, greener environment for initiatives like ‘Tidy Towns’. Most recently, during Covid-19, this community spirit and willingness to help has drawn citizens together to support each other and protect the most vulnerable in society. Likewise, any energy transition and climate action must practise justice and inclusivity, to include everyone on this journey.

Sustainable Energy Communities (SEC), run through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), offers communities the opportunity to become more energy conscious and energy-efficient. The process begins with establishing a steering group, then the next step is to develop an Energy Master Plan (EMP) for the community with the help of a consultant.

Seeding a new partnership

Batterstown is a small rural village in County Meath. With the help of a mentor, Gavin Harte  the committee, under the leadership of Philip McCormack,  put many hours of work into gathering information and engaging with the village community and were keen to progress through the SEC process.

However, the initial cost of procuring and appointing a consultant to develop the Energy Master Plan would be difficult for this small community. The village called in Meath County Council to meet with residents to see how the council could help.

After discussions with the Finance Section, Meath County Council agreed to become a lead partner with Batterstown Sustainable Energy Community, procure and pay for the consultant, then recoup the money from SEAI. This decision was not taken lightly. One of the deciding factors was the clear dedication and commitment of Philip and his colleagues and knowing they would be strongly supported by their mentor, Gavin. It was clear they intended to deliver on the EMP. In early 2019 the partnership was formed and consultants were procured and appointed.

Celebrate success

To celebrate this partnership and showcase the SEC, the County Council hosted a launch event. The event opened with a display showcasing local companies promoting energy-efficient technologies, electric vehicles and other climate, energy or sustainable businesses. Following this, a more structured session was held where the council, the SEC, SEAI and the mentor explained the partnership and process of becoming a SEC.

This event had two benefits. First of all it opened up the SEC process for those interested in participating, and enabled them to speak to people who are going through the process. A second, unanticipated benefit was the success of the  showcase for local suppliers, which  became the template for a series of Climate Action Roadshows, six of which took place between 2019 and early 2020.

The partnership is mutually beneficial. The SEC benefits from the council’s expertise and procurement skills, ensuring correct procedures are followed, and the worry of funding the EMP is removed. For the council, it connects us to a group of willing people to engage with our climate work and enhances our reputation. From a national perspective, our arrangement aligns with the government’s Action Plan To Tackle Climate Breakdown 2019 and recent programme which seeks to establish 1,500-plus Sustainable Energy Communities nationally.

Partnership and collaboration are important and we are fortunate to have a strong relationship with Dunleer SEC, a not-for-profit business in the adjoining county of Louth. Dunleer SEC have been extremely helpful with delivering workshops and supporting the SEC, and facilitated the inclusion of houses from Meath in their Better Energy Community application. The lead partnership model has had interest from other local authorities across the country and is considered very good practice.


Batterstown Energy Master Plan was delivered in early 2020. The planned launch of the SEC was unfortunately postponed due to Covid-19. However there has been an exciting development with  Philip McCormack, who drove the formation of Batterstown SEC so energetically, becoming the SEC Mentor for County Meath, bringing his expertise and enthusiasm to many more citizens.

Core to the success of the initiative is the ethos of equity and partnership, where information and benefits flow freely. Our SEC programmes are based on this ethos. Initially, there is a heavy investment of time in communication. Potential SEC communities are fully informed not only of the benefits of the schemes but also of the level of work, commitment and investment required to ensure success. Only when this is understood can communities gain ownership. Once community buy-in is established, then organic growth from within ensures long-term development and can seed future sustainable energy thinking.

Meath County Council, through the elected members and executive, believes strongly in empowering the communities within our area. Supporting communities that require a hand up rather than a handout is preferable. The aspirations of all our communities are fundamentally the same, regardless of county or country. In these changed and changing times, challenges continue to present us with opportunities to innovate and Meath County Council’s commitment to supporting our communities and our people is stronger than ever.

By Caroline Corrigan and David Gilroy, Meath County Council

More information
Meath city profile

6. Municipal company boards

Combined efforts: Wolfhagen, Germany

Wolfhagen creates places on the municipal energy company board for local energy cooperative representatives.
Participation level: Collaborate

Photo Credit: Dirk Schmidt on Wikipedia Commons

In the small city of Wolfhagen, in Northern Hesse, Germany, the city council backed the creation of a citizen cooperative that now owns a 25% stake in the municipal energy company. As a result of the partnership 6MW of new renewable energy generation has been financed and an energy-saving foundation has been created.

The city began taking an active role in local energy matters in the era of energy market liberalisation in the 1990s. They took the decision to retain, rather than sell, the Stadwerke (municipal owned energy company), and re-municipalise the local grid.

By the early 2000s the priority was to increase the  renewable energy supply, as the next step in improving energy provision and tackling climate change. Local renewable generation was an opportunity for city-led climate action that could build local economic opportunities, and build citizen participation at the same time.

The idea of setting up an Energy Community came from the Stadtwerke Energy Manager, who saw a chance to advance citizen participation and raise much needed capital to invest in new wind and solar projects.

Backing citizen energy cooperatives

The manager kickstarted the process for forming the energy cooperative by presenting the idea to the local council. After two years of council debate, public events, film showings and discussions, the cooperative, BEG Wolfhagen, was formed, with 264 Wolfhagen citizens making up the cooperative’s first members.

Wolfhagen’s energy cooperative was invited to purchase a 25% stake in the Stadtwerke, handing over direct ownership to local citizens. In their first community share offer (valued at €500 each, with a maximum of five per member), the cooperative raised €1.47 million. Although this fell short of the money required to purchase the 25% stake, the city council offered a loan to cover the remaining finance, which was repaid within 12 months. Regular communication between the two organisations is kept up-to-date with supervisory board meetings and voting rights on all issues concerning electricity production and supply in the region.

Working together

The combined effort of the cooperative and Stadtwerke has produced impressive results. In 2014 the Stadtwerke successfully achieved its 100% renewable energy target, one year ahead of schedule, ending its reliance on fossil fuels and external energy suppliers. The jointly-owned 6MW wind farm and solar plants are the main energy generators in Wolfhagen.

The company makes a profit every year, and shareholders in the cooperative receive an annual dividend (around 4 per cent in 2016), whilst the remaining funds flow into the cooperative’s energy-saving foundation. At the end of 2016, BEG Wolfhagen had 814 members with a cooperative wealth of more than €3.9 million. Now established, the cooperative gives any new members a two year period to pay for their initial share in €20 instalments, helping to broaden access to the cooperative to include lower-income households.

The cooperative contributes to strategic decision making through the voices of two cooperative representatives who sit on the Stadtwerke’s nine-member board. The two organisations are currently working on new mobility projects in infrastructure charging and subsidised e-cars together. Stadtwerke employees meet regularly to discuss potential new sites for cooperative solar PV and opportunities for the cooperative to invest in new wind turbine shares.

Whilst the aspiration for citizen participation was always present within Wolfhagen energy policy, experience has taught its importance. As Manfred Schaub, a municipal energy worker at the City Council, observed:

”The most important factor is the active people…. Not everything that is possible, is possible to do in reality if the people don’t participate. We had some projects that were good and economically sound, but we were missing the people and so we could not do it…. As a technician I had to learn that. I saw [the issue] from the technical view…. I learned that it’s not only technical, it also concerns the people and social context.”

Adapted from mPower interview on Wolfhagen’s energy transition

Responding to public discontent: Nis, Serbia

Nis municipality integrates citizens’ price change commission into the municipal energy board.
Participation level: Collaborate

Photo Credit: Av Monika on SNL

Situated in the Nišava valley in the South of the country, Niš is the third-largest city in Serbia, a country with an energy sector deeply affected by its dependency on fossil fuel imports, especially natural gas and petroleum brought in to complement Serbia’s own coal combustion. Consumers also face high levels of energy poverty.

The municipality is determined to bring about an energy transition so that the energy system is democratic, clean, social, efficient and renewable. To this end, energy policies in Niš are embedded in a set of interwoven action plans and road maps.

Niš was the first Serbian city to adopt and implement a Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP), which it did in 2014. This defines the concrete actions, responsibilities and timings needed to achieve the authority’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions reduction targets. In its SEAP, the city has aligned its target with the EU target to reduce energy consumption by 21% in 2020 compared to the baseline of 2010.

As a signatory of the Covenant of Mayors (COM), the city’s agenda until 2030 will be outlined in a Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan (SECAP). The SECAP provides a template for individual action plans based on the SEAP and draws on research from the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), allowing municipalities to monitor and analyse relevant data as a basis for integrated climate and energy management.

Energy price disruption

The municipality of Nis decided to introduce a collaborative commission on energy price changes in response to an outpouring of public discontent.

The introduction of this measure had its roots in 2013 when the city switched the billing system for district heating from an approach based on the area of a property to one based on monthly consumption. This change was introduced to increase transparency and fairness, but many people objected to it. Low-income households with poorly insulated homes who faced higher costs were particularly unhappy, and many residents demanded disconnection from the district heating system. They felt the change in the billing system further entrenched energy poverty, which is already a huge problem in Serbia (the second most affected European country after Bulgaria).

Facing increasing tensions between citizens on one side and the municipality and the heating company on the other, the administration decided to invite residents to be part of a democratic process to find a solution. A citizens’ organisation that represents city dwellers is now represented in a commission for price change approval. It also sits on the supervisory board of the municipal heating company, where the representative gets to take part in management meetings.

This new, democratic structure has empowered the municipality’s capacity to drive the local energy transition forward for everyone’s benefit. The public company consulted users to improve its billing system. Citizens that receive district heating asked to pay a bit more in the winter months and a bit less during summer, and this change has been implemented.

Adapted from a text by Bojan Gajić, city of Niš, Serbia

More information
Nis City Profile