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At three crossroads: where does prosumerism lead us?

 
The European energy transition is at a crossroads. Or rather: at multiple crossroads, one after the other! When thinking about how energy systems can become just and sustainable, it’s much better to imagine crossroads than one straight road ahead. This is what DRIFTers Julia Wittmayer, Tessa de Geus, Flor Avelino and their colleague from ULB Bonno Pel argue based on their research into renewable energy prosumerism.  
 
Renewable energy prosumerism is about being both a producer and consumer of renewable energy. This can be at the level of individual households, but also in collectives such as energy cooperatives, or municipal energy companies. There are high ambitions to upscale and mainstream prosumerism across Europe – as has been formulated for example by the European Union in their Energy Union Policy. The question is: where do we want renewable energy prosumerism to take us? Considering the grand ambitions, this is a question that is not asked enough.
 
Where do we want renewable energy prosumerism to take us?
As part of our activities in the PROSEU research project, we started to pose this question to prosumerism initiatives, intermediaries and energy policy workers. At first glance, there seems to be a broad agreement of the overall direction: we want a sustainable and just energy system. The devil is in the details, however. A perfect ‘prosumer future’ does not exist. More precisely, there is no undisputed road towards a best future: what is the ‘best’ way forward is a matter of interests and perspective. Moreover, the future is uncertain: detours and readjustments soon render a singular roadmap obsolete. Remaining aware of different pathways can help us be more resilient to (unexpected) shocks.
 
Transdisciplinary dialogues at the crossroads
To acknowledge these different futures, we formulated three important crossroads in the mainstreaming of prosumerism:
 
1) Prosumerism as community economy or as commercial opportunity?
2) Prosumerism between inclusiveness and privilege?
3) Prosumerism through energy islands or with full system interconnection?
 
We explored these crossroads in a transdisciplinary dialogue throughout 2020. We did so with 140 individuals from policy, business, energy agencies, prosumer initiatives, academia and NGOs who were coming from different European countries. Each crossroad is formulated as a question and picks up one major tension or disagreement about what prosumerism can and should be. In essence, each crossroad paints two opposed futures of a mainstreamed prosumerism – emphasizing extremes. The transdisciplinary dialogue was then a means to explore the many shades of grey that fall in between these extremes presented here.
 
In this piece, we outline these extremes and also hint to some of the shades of grey that we explored – if you want to know more, please dive into the additional reading we added at the end of this piece.
 
Crossroads 1: Prosumerism as community economy or as commercial opportunity?
Zooming in on the future of prosumer business models, we explored the tension between the two extremes of a charitable community logic or a commercial market logic. According to a community logic, prosumer business models should meet the energy needs of communities; according to a commercial logic, energy systems are governed largely by commercial market actors – much in the way that liberalised energy markets are governed today: prosumerism then is a commercial activity. Local prosumerism, prosumerism as social enterprise or prosumerism as commercial opportunity were explored in a PROSEU workshop as possible future directions between these two extremes. For each of these the participants devised a roadmap.


 
Crossroads 2: Prosumerism between inclusiveness and privilege?
Zooming in on the future of prosumerism for energy inclusiveness, we explored the tensions between a future of prosumerism that is inclusive, or one where prosumerism is only for the privileged. Inclusive prosumerism envisages collectives, whether public or private, that engage in the production and consumption of energy while taking the public interest as their leading motivation. In privileged prosumerism, individuals or collectives are primarily interested in their own and/or mutual interest, which forms the starting point for redistributing benefits among themselves. Municipality-driven prosumerism, Emancipating prosumerism, Networked prosumerism and Professionalised prosumerism were explored in the workshop as possible future directions between these two extremes. For each of these, the participants devised a roadmap.


 

Crossroads 3: Prosumerism through energy islands or with full system interconnection?
Zooming in on the configurations of future energy systems, we explored the tensions between two main directions of moving towards isolated prosumer systems (i.e. the energy island model), or towards fully interconnected, digitalised energy systems with prosumers and energy communities connected to the public grid. Energy islands points towards the optimisation of decentralised ‘off-grid’ energy cells connected to battery storage possibilities (also known as full grid defection). Full system interconnection envisions full integration of prosumers into central energy systems on a national, and even European, or global scale. A menu of prosumer options, Prosumerism on Demand and Smart Prosumerism were explored in the workshop as possible future directions between these two extremes. For each of these the participants devised a roadmap.

 
And now?
Prosumerism surely does not ‘naturally’ lead to more sustainable and just energy systems. From a just sustainability transitions perspective, it needs to combine grassroots activism with market creativity and entrepreneurship, regulated by a redistributive state – and at times it will lean more towards one or the other extreme in specific contexts. Above all, what is needed is ongoing dialogue and discussion on the values, interests and preferences amongst and between different individuals, organisations and stakeholder groups. We argue that continuously exploring the variety of futures is crucial to strengthen energy democracy.

After all, where prosumerism will take us and how future energy systems will look like, will depend on how values and interests are negotiated between market, state, and community, as well as how power is shared among these spheres.

This process of negotiation should be a transparent and democratic process of deliberation that takes different interests on board. This process should enable participation by individuals notwithstanding age, background knowledge, gender, or ethnicity as well as organisations notwithstanding their current role in the energy system: grid operators, energy producers, power plant operators, energy cooperative, municipal utilities and more.
 
Would you like to get started?  With the PROSEU team, we have developed 10 provocations to spark such a dialogue – you can find these here.
 
Or, get in touch with us at wittmayer@drift.eur.nl to continue the conversation or explore collaborations.
 
More food for thought? See these reports:

  • Pel, B., Wittmayer, J.M., Geus, T., Oxenaar, S., Avelino, F., Fraaije, M., Petrick, K., Doračić, B., Toporek, M., Brown, D., Campos, I., Gährs, S., Davis, M., Horstink, L., Hinsch, A., Marín-Gonzales, E., Ehrtmann, M., Klarwein, S., Fosse, J., Hall, S., Kampman, B. (2019). Synthesis of incentive structures: input for Participatory Integrated Assessment. (Deliverable 6.1). PROSEU – Prosumers for the Energy Union: Mainstreaming active participation of citizens in the energy transition. The full report is accessible here.
  • de Geus, T., Wittmayer, J., Van Berkel, F. (2021). Charging the future: Discussing value tensions for mainstreaming prosumerism to 2030 and 2050 PROSEU – Prosumers for the Energy Union: Mainstreaming active participation of citizens in the energy transition (Deliverable N°6.3). The full report is accessible here.

Or these academic articles:

  • Wittmayer, Julia M., Flor Avelino, Bonno Pel, and Inês Campos. 2021. “Contributing to Sustainable and Just Energy Systems? The Mainstreaming of Renewable Energy Prosumerism within and across Institutional Logics.” Energy Policy 149(112053).
  • Pel, Bonno, Rob Raven, and Rinie van Est. 2020. “Transitions Governance with a Sense of Direction: Synchronization Challenges in the Case of the Dutch ‘Driverless Car’ Transition.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 160(August): 120244. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2020.120244.

 

 

 


Date
June 29, 2021