Neighbourhood power: Ghent, Belgium
Photo Credit: Carbon Coop
In Ghent the municipality has partnered with Energhent, an existing Energy Community organisation, to build and invest in local energy infrastructure.
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.
The city’s climate journey began 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 and commercial buildings, low carbon transport, sustainable industry, food, circular economy and climate adaptation, with plans for each to guide city-wide activity. On renewable energy, the city has calculated it needs to install 80 MW of solar energy and 100 MW of wind by 2030.
Citizens are seen as essential partners for accelerating the local transition in Ghent. To make this happen the city has initiated a patchwork of projects specific to each district area, making up one central storyline of positive local change. A commitment to an inclusive transition underlies the work. Routes for tackling energy vulnerability are built in, with existing energy community energy advice hubs, and new projects.
NEED ACCESS TO PHOTO ON GOOGLE DRIVEPicture < Credit: Carbon Coop
mPower study visit walking tour of Buurzame Stroom neighbourhood tour
The city initiated a unique collaboration with a number of local partners and launched “Buurzame Stroom” (neighbourhood power in Dutch), a pilot neighbourhood engagement scheme that started operation in 2018 and ran through to 2020. The Daamport district, a densely packed suburban area of the city was selected as the project’s home due to the opportunity it presented for exploring social inclusivity.
The partners included three energy cooperatives, two with energy systems expertise and the other focused on low carbon transport; Ghent University, which acts as a trusted, neutral contributor; a social protection association that is tasked with reaching out to vulnerable households; and the local distribution system operator (DSO).
The role of the city was crucial as it supported overall management, made links with other initiatives in the city, and coordinated between the various partners, including resolving conflicts and issues. The project sat alongside a patchwork of municipal-led interventions all looking to tackle sustainability issues, including a heat network, green spaces and community-owned solar PV church initiatives.
The ambitious consortium was set up to maximise the potential for locally generated energy in the neighbourhood, hoping to equally share the costs and benefits without having to expand the present electricity grid. There was already local interest in exploring how solar panels could be installed on more rooftops and how those with unsuitable roofs might be able to invest in installations hosted on neighbourhood supermarkets or schools, giving the consortium something to work with.
The three cooperatives, each with different missions, were instrumental in facilitating the citizen engagement opportunities. Ecopower, the largest energy cooperative in Belgium, played the role of aggregator, incentivising and empowering households to better control their energy consumption through demand response management, via smart meters and open data applications. The EnerGhent cooperative provided citizens with the opportunity to invest in local solar power production by acquiring photovoltaic panels. An electric car-sharing cooperative called Partago made electric vehicles and charging stations available to allow excess power not consumed directly to be used in or stored by car batteries. To complete the picture, the project also experimented with storing electricity in batteries in homes.
The consortium worked together to build relationships with local people, engaging residents with different backgrounds and types of building ownership to install solar panels. The consortium organised presentations at neighbourhood events and festivals, and a community cafe acted as a meeting place for those wishing to talk about sustainability. Workshops in a community building allowed a free flowing and ongoing conversation between the cooperative groups and citizens. In some cases residents that had attended the workshops went on to host their own informal sessions in their living rooms. Mixing formal and informal opportunities for discussion created a sense of openness to explore perceptions of solar panels as being too expensive or time intensive for people to work with.
Having a clear financial support offer for solar panel installation made it much easier for those that were initially resistant to participating. People were signposted towards Flemish government-backed Energy Loans, enabling households to borrow up to €30,000, interest free, and to the local revolving loan fund where money paid back is recirculated into low carbon activities. These funds allowed more individuals to participate in and benefit from the solar schemes.
Some challenges arose during the initiative. Having built relationships with Daamport residents there could have been an opportunity to look beyond solar installations into energy efficiency measures. Many roofs are yet to be insulated but a tangle of offers and finance made it difficult for residents to access support. There were also access issues, where some individuals were not approved for loans by the Flemish scheme. Where language barriers persisted, more time with the support of embedded community organisations would have been needed before trust could be established. Installations on rental homes also proved difficult, with landlords on the whole deciding not to invest in panels even when a solid financial case was presented to them. There was an ambition to link up citizens interested in investing in cooperatively owned solar on other homes, but energy system regulations continue to be a barrier to this.
Whilst these obstacles slowed progress, a few community owned schemes have managed to get started. For example, EnerGhent signed an agreement with supermarket Aldi, local companies and a school, to host community owned solar installations. Any citizen that invested in the solar scheme could become a member of the cooperative and benefit from a financial dividend.
This multi-stakeholder cooperation, with strong citizen involvement, has produced some real tangible results as well as insights into the challenges that citizens face in installing renewable energy generation. A “fair and smart” grid project has helped to make solar profitable and affordable to new residents, optimising energy production at a local level by better matching supply and demand. It has created a sense of community in the targeted neighbourhood thanks to a very collective and participative approach. The initiative proved instrumental in helping the city experiment with new partnerships, frameworks and regulations to help make local green energy production and supply a fair and profitable business model.
Edited from expert witness session by Timo from City of Ghent Municipality