Energy communities: innovative solutions to climate change in El Salvador

With the objective of reducing the effects of climate change and guaranteeing access to energy in different latitudes, the figure of Energy Communities has been developed. These are legal organizations made up of a variety of partners that may include individuals, associations, small and medium-sized companies, government entities, among others.

Climate change is a real existential threat that requires concrete and decisive action. States, businesses, and communities are mobilizing to create technologies and innovations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

After five decades of debate, initiated at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment has been recognized by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.  This right is closely related to the rights to life and personal integrity.

States have the arduous task and obligation to mitigate climate change and prevent its negative effects on human rights, therefore, they have taken measures to reduce emissions quickly, and if possible, immediately. In recent years, various climate change mitigation technologies have been proposed. Renewable energies, such as solar, wind, waste-to-energy and geothermal, could generate 90% of the world’s energy by 2050, according to the United Nations study “Renewable energy-powering a safer future”. Green hydrogen produced from renewable sources could avoid up to 830 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Modern bioenergy, including liquid biofuels from bagasse (the dried fibrous residue left over from sugarcane juice extraction) and other plants, biogas produced by anaerobic digestion of waste, and wood pellet heating systems, has the potential to complement carbon-free energy sources.

The various strategies that are being implemented are focused on a just transition to a secure climate system that requires integrated solutions to address an environmental and human rights crisis. One of these strategies is the implementation, in vulnerable areas, of the so-called “energy communities” which we will address in this article within a series of publications that we will be developing in our legal practice area of energy and infrastructure.

In this context, for example, in Spain, today’s energy communities have been in existence since the 19th century. The fact that some citizens living far away from urban centers did not have access to electric energy, motivated the construction of cooperatives, where the inhabitants coordinated to generate their own energy.

Over the years, these cooperatives have evolved into energy communities of all kinds.

In this context, this term of energy communities, which at a global level has become dynamic in the process of energy transition and access to energy on the road to meeting the SDGs by 2030, is understood as an organizational structure with great potential for replication in the various Latin American latitudes and is playing a key role in providing citizens with an instrument to channel and organize collective actions, thus taking an active and central role in the process of energy transition and reducing the energy access gap and the effects of climate change.

We could agree, from the various regulations, on a common definition or comprehensive concept: “An energy community is a legal entity, democratically built and formed by neighborhood groups, public or private entities and small or medium-sized enterprises that wish, on a voluntary basis, to cooperate to benefit from renewable energy sources produced in their territory”.

These groups of people, social organizations, companies or institutions have emerged as a response to generate, consume and share renewable energy in a local and sustainable way.In addition, they have emerged to build a transition towards more sustainable and fairer energy systems in the world. In Germany, Denmark and Spain energy communities have been widely developed with positive results.

The main characteristic of energy communities, in jurisdictions such as Colombia, which would be a more immediate reference to our Central American latitudes, is that they are regulated and with the vision that they are built on the concept of local energy self-consumption, which implies the generation of energy for own, individual or collective use and in the same place where it is generated, which can be done, for example, through the installation of solar panels.

Community energy projects have the capacity to reduce development and operating costs by becoming large-scale projects. Also, cooperative energy proposals have a positive effect on the local community, creating jobs and boosting the local economy.

The main objective of the energy communities is not only to achieve an economic benefit, but also to take advantage of the renewable resources available in our locality to achieve a social and environmental benefit.

Despite the many advantages that energy communities have, there are significant challenges that hinder the realization of their projects:

    • The technical and financial barriers of cooperatives or community organizations.
    • Lack of training and knowledge in renewable energies.
    • The need for clear and consistent regulation to support the transition to more sustainable and community-based energy.
    • Potential conflicts of interest with traditional energy generating companies.

This model implies strengthening fiscal, regulatory, legal, environmental, technological and citizen participation aspects. The issue of participation is one of the most highlighted issues in this energy transition path to achieve fair and sustainable energy access. Through a combination of economic incentives, regulatory frameworks and public education campaigns, countries that have developed this modality and/or associative figure have created an enabling environment for the growth and success of energy communities.

Economic incentives, such as tax exemptions, subsidies and grants, have been instrumental in fostering the development of solar, wind and hydropower projects.

It has also generated the necessary synergy with international organizations and non-governmental entities to provide technical support and training to formed and developing energy communities.

In addition, the governments of the countries in which the figure has been developed have put in place regulatory frameworks to ensure that energy communities have fair access to the national energy grid and has streamlined the licensing and permitting process for energy projects.

Outreach to raise awareness and educate the public about the benefits of energy communities is vital. Dissemination of success stories in extremely poor or vulnerable communities has shown the positive social, economic, and environmental impacts of energy initiatives.

This not only encourages more communities to adopt renewable energy, but also fosters a sense of community ownership and pride. Energy communities represent a unique opportunity to address the challenges of climate change and energy access. Through local initiatives and the support of committed organizations, these communities are showing the way to a more sustainable and equitable energy future.

This model or structure of energy communities promotes a circular economy and local consumption. The generation of infrastructures and new renewable projects promotes the creation of local employment, in addition to encouraging the local economy, prioritizing local and proximity consumption. It also contributes to the development of renewable energies as a means of consumption, promoting the use of the natural resources of each locality.

The creation of local energy communities allows a fair and easy access to citizens, being able to benefit from energy resources and services or mobility thanks to renewable energies.