A peak beyond the seamlessly integrated municipal energy networks in Europe

Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow,SPRU, University of Sussex and PhD student, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Urban spaces in the EU, especially within their municipal forms, where low-carbon transition agendas at multiple scales are abundant have become sought after and crowded policy spaces. Municipalities are perceived as having become stronger units of governance due to their increasing number of managerial roles and EU support, particularly in the shape of transnational municipal networks for climate change and energy policy. In fact, municipalities have seemingly become increasingly good in negotiating responses to various policy agendas, succeeding in integrating and reconciling approaches to energy efficiency improvements, decarbonisation and climate change adaptation and mitigation within the framework of concepts such as Smart Cities and programmes such as BioRegions. Such pioneer municipalities have been hailed as achieving so much, in areas where nation states have struggled (for example in integrating strategic low-carbon transition infrastructure and services such as transportation and energy). In doing so, they are seen as isolated ‘islands’ of low-carbon living, plugged into wider policy and stakeholder networks, whose “lights” are multiplying across the EU, flickering stronger and brighter in patterns spreading beyond and despite national borders.

Although a range of transnational municipal networks work in countries like Bulgaria, where the number of pioneer municipalities could be probably capped at less than 15, the lights might never come on. There are spaces where low-carbon policy tends to whirl around its intended target, without quite getting there. This is a quick peak in one such space in Europe. The interest of Bulgarian municipalities in energy efficiency can be traced to the mid 1990s when in the midst of fiscal and political instability responsibility for public lighting was transferred from the national electricity distribution company to municipalities. In the winter of 1997 fast growing inflation meant that municipalities struggled to keep the lights and heating on for public buildings like schools and hospitals. That’s when 23 municipalities set up a ‘self-help’ municipal network called EcoEnergy whose objective was to develop municipal capacity to increase energy efficiency in public buildings in order to reduce utility costs. Ever since, for the majority of Bulgarian municipalities, energy efficiency at municipal level has been equated with reducing the cost of energy. The membership in the municipal network quickly grew and in 2003 it represented 2/3 of the total population of the country.

Although the municipal network has actively worked for over 15 years at national, regional and international level, and is integrated within a thick web of key transnational networks and programmes such as EnergyCities, Intelligent Energy Europe, ManagEnergy and the Covenant of Mayors, it struggles to develop the energy efficiency agenda of Bulgarian municipalities beyond its utility reduction focus. Although many stakeholders maintain that Bulgarian municipalities are in fact reducing carbon emissions even with their rudimentary energy efficiency projects, the extent to which this is happening needs to be explored further.

In contrast to the Bulgarian agenda of energy efficiency as a means of cutting cost, in most EU countries the energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the interest in improving energy efficiency as a means of reducing energy consumption (i.e. energy conservation). Since then interest in energy efficiency and conservation has been maintained and elevated as the most cost-effective and fastest way to meet (substantial part of the) climate change mitigation targets. Energy saved – ‘negajoules’- compared to no improvements in energy efficiency is considered a key energy source in Europe. Thus, energy efficiency projects and programmes are often implemented under the headings ‘climate action’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘sustainable energy’ or ‘green’. However, if we look deeper than the glossy new facades of public buildings and the happy endings of the before and after comparisons, we can see that in many cases the energy saving and carbon reduction agendas continue to simply circle around these spaces.

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

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Not all energy efficiency improvements result in a decrease in associated carbon emissions. Calculations of possible carbon dioxide reductions often present a skewed picture of the actual energy savings because they are based on a standardised baseline. The majority of municipal buildings in Bulgaria, such as schools, have been chronically under-heated and under-cooled, with levels of thermal comfort significantly below the EU average of 20C (even below the recommended minimum of16C) since the early 1990s. It is still a common practice for badly insulated buildings to have low annual thermal levels.

When such public buildings are retrofitted the associated carbon reduction is calculated based on a normalised baseline of 20C, rather than the actual which could vary between 11C and 16C. The calculations do not take into account that once the building is retrofitted and heated at the normalised levels it will end up not only not making any actual energy savings, but often will result in more energy being consumed. This illustrates a rebound effect, where some of the energy savings from efficiency improvements are used up in the form of higher energy consumption. In this case energy efficiency improvements serve as a means of achieving higher thermal comfort. Considering that more than 60% of municipal buildings in Bulgaria are in such condition, the gap between projected carbon savings and actual savings will grow with the number of retrofitted buildings if unchecked.

For Bulgarian municipalities implementing energy efficiency measures makes sense only if there are financial gains to be made (i.e. cutting the cost of utilities), while carbon dioxide reduction measures can mean having to choose a more expensive option. In fact, in a string of 11 interviews conducted in Bulgarian in 2011 all interviewed municipalities ranked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as least important in implementing energy projects. The question then is not only How such spaces could be engaged with the network of pioneer municipalities which exists across Europe, but also To what extent is their context of spatial variations truly understood at EU level?

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