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The dream of a solar village

The law slows things down. But change is coming and communities want to be at the forefront of energy transition. In the parish of São Luís, the first renewable energy community in Portugal may soon be born.

The early summer sun shines down on six new solar panels on the roofs of residents in São Luís, Odemira. The slogan “Power to the people!” is being taken literally by this tranquil village in the south-west of Portugal.

“We’re living in a very paternalistic market. But there is going to be a big change in the distribution of electricity in Portugal, and São Luís wants to be ready for that change. Probably producing as much as it consumes,” comments André Pereira, after completing the installation of some solar panels. He is from the renewable energy department of the Minga Cooperative in Montemor-o-Novo and is working with the Energia com Alegria (“Energy with Joy”) initiative. Rather than each of them buying equipment just for themselves, these inhabitants have made a collective purchase of solar kits through Minga. And, besides installing the panels, André Pereira also trains people, so that they will then be able to install and repair their kits independently.

“Designing a Renewable Energy Community” is the title of the meeting scheduled for 8 June at the São Luis Recreational Musical Society. The programme? Workshops on renewable energy, offering introductory theory and practice, together with DIY knowledge, as well as a participatory session about how to design an energy community, covering a range of topics from the necessary materials to the organisational requirements.

Solar panels have been placed on the roof of the Society, as well as on the Parish Council and the Casa do Povo (Community Centre). It was with these panels that the dream started in 2012. “The idea was: let’s install panels on public buildings. These will then generate a certain sum of money, which can be allocated to projects in the parish, producing funds for social and environmental projects developed in a clean way,” recalls Sérgio Maraschin. This idea was a winning entry in the Odemira Participatory Budget and was awarded 125,000 euros.

The dream took shape: to make São Luís a solar village, and then later a solar parish. To move towards energy self-sufficiency using renewable, decentralised, democratic and low-carbon means. In 2017, a survey was made of the village’s energy needs. Now the first collective purchase has gone ahead.

André Pereira brought a solar panel along to the first meeting, in January. “You might have thought that everyone already knew all about the subject. But for many people it was a ‘eureka’ moment,” recalls Sérgio. “‘I can put this on my house.’ Touching, demystifying, simplifying. It was a turning point.”

“From the first ‘let’s make a collective purchase’ to people getting together and talking… took from 20 January until a week ago: four months!” Along the way, some people dropped out.

The experience can be replicated for other villages, Sérgio assures us: “there are other communities where everything could certainly be done more efficiently and quickly,” he says, roaring with laughter. Maybe this is the typical pace of a self-organised initiative, with a horizontal management system based on voluntary work in the rural Alentejo.

Sérgio Maraschin, the organiser of both the São Luís Transition movement and the Energia com Alegria initiative, has been living here for ten years with his partner. “We ended up here and we’re happy,” he says.

On their small plot of land, they grow fruit trees, working according to permaculture principles and looking for a quieter life. “I’m not 20 anymore. It’s time to do something more constructive and meaningful.”

A “living laboratory”

“Only by decentralizing our basic mode of energy production – by breaking the cartels that monopolize the present system of energy production and by creating new decentralized forms of energy technology – can we restore the ecological and cultural configuration that led to the emergence of political democracy in Europe,” wrote Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, Random House, 1977). The American anthropologist considered the centralised mode of energy production to be the basis of the control and authority of a state, placing limits on democracy and a free life.

Forty years later, the new decentralised forms of energy technology are here. “The technology exists!” says Sérgio Maraschin. “The panels are very affordable today. The potential in terms of solar exposure is very good. Young people are very enthusiastic. The most difficult step is not to find the money, nor to choose the technology. The most difficult thing is for people to come together, to join forces in pursuit of a common goal. The crux of the matter is organising ourselves!”

“For the first time, the process of energy production and consumption is in the hands of the people,” says Inês Campos, the coordinator of the European project PROSEU at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, who has joined the São Luís Transition movement to help in the design of a renewable energy community. With a team of people from various academic areas – economics, politics, sociology, engineering, energy, biology – she discovered a “living laboratory” in São Luís. “Our approach is based on action research. We don’t want to be leading the project or to impose anything on it, just to contribute to a process that already exists and which is in the hands of this community.”

The researcher points out that all societies, especially in those countries that have undergone an industrial revolution (Europe, the United States, China, Brazil…), have to decarbonise their economies. And more than just simply involving a change in technology, this transition of the energy system is a social transition. It’s a new understanding of what energy is, new behaviours. “A transition is a radical change: the energy system may be completely different in the future. A different world.”

According to Inês, we can think of the transformation of the energy system in two ways: “We can simply replace fossil fuels with renewables and continue to have the same type of system: centralised and dominated by large operators and traders. Or we can look at the nature of renewables and consider that they can easily be produced from our homes. It’s a bit far-fetched to have an oil well in your garden, but it’s perfectly conceivable to have a panel on your roof.”

“We wouldn’t like to have a photovoltaic plant covering 20 hectares here. The dream is for small decentralised units, scattered all around,” stresses Sérgio. “Each house, each public building, each association producing its own energy, with the excess production being consumed by our neighbours, with or without any financial return. There will be a multitude of connected units, either in the network that already exists – which is a public good – or in isolated networks.”

The time is now

Change is already happening all over Europe. Numerous cooperatives and so-called renewable energy communities are emerging in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom or France, to be produced in a decentralised way. And in none of these countries does the sun shine as much as it does in Portugal. In Spain, too, there are more and more energy cooperatives.

“In Portugal, there aren’t more energy communities because the law doesn’t permit collective self-consumption,” explains Inês Campos. The subsidised scheme, which previously paid for each kWh sold to the grid, was replaced in 2014 by the Self-Consumption Law. This only allows for individual self-consumption – people can sell what they don’t consume to the network, at a very low price. It doesn’t permit collective self-consumption – investment, management and collective consumption of a production system – nor does it allow the excess energy produced to be sold directly to a community or other neighbouring agents.

Also, the distribution network operator, EDP Distribution, formerly a public company that was sold to the Chinese giant Three Gorges during the economic “crisis”, doesn’t encourage self-consumption as a general practice.

However, after the Paris Agreement, the European Union presented its Revision of the Renewable Energy Directive and the Electricity Market Directive at the end of 2018. Member States, including Portugal, have to ensure the transposition of these revisions into their national laws by 2021. The new legal framework should include the definition of “Jointly Acting Renewable Self-Consumers” and “Renewable Energy Communities” (renewable energy producer/consumer communities). These new legal entities introduce the possibility of collectively sharing and managing decentralised renewable energy production systems. An energy community can be a building in Lisbon, a condominium. One of the expected results is the possibility of exchanging and selling overproduction freely among the various stakeholders in the electricity market (condominiums, districts or neighbourhoods, companies, institutions or micro-grids) in the future.

“Despite legal restrictions, this is the time to discuss a model for energy communities in Portugal. The energy transition is happening now and local communities must play a central role in this transformation,” says Sérgio.

“How can we finance a collective self-consumption system? What can we do now, given what the law permits? what can we do in the not-too-distant future and how can we prepare ourselves for that future?” This is the challenge that Inês presents us with.

“It’s important for communities to play a leading role in designing a new energy model,” concludes Sérgio Maraschin, “but they should also play an active part in their management, placing themselves at the centre of collaborative and participatory decision-making processes, and thus enabling the transition to a new energy system, one that is more ecological, more inclusive and more transparent.”

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