Headline: Our Energy Transition – How Local Participation Can Shape Sustainability Transformations

Landschaft mit Windkraftanlagen und Menschen

A joint study by Das Progressive Zentrum and RIFS.

Von Victoria Luh (RIFS) and Johanna Siebert (DPZ)

Although a large majority of the population in Germany supports the energy transition, its implementation is fraught with conflict at the local level. While some communities roll out the red carpet for project developers in the hope of boosting town coffers, elsewhere environmental and aesthetic concerns fuel fierce opposition. The energy transition is attended by complex processes of negotiation and conflict resolution, especially at the local level, where change is most tangible. Ensuring that the course of the energy transition is guided by democratic input and that citizens share in its benefits requires expertise on the ground in towns and communities to facilitate negotiations and resolve conflicts.

In a new study prepared in cooperation with the Berlin-based think tank Das Progressive Zentrum, we examine the challenges and success factors for various approaches to financial participation and conflict-sensitive participatory dialogue. Based on 61 interviews with project developers and stakeholders as well as affected citizens and public administration employees from almost all federal states, this research offers detailed insights into three cases. The study, titled Our energy transition? How local participation can shape the transformation, also identifies structural barriers and success factors for material and immaterial participation in local transformation processes.

Three case studies

Hoort 2 Wind Farm in the municipality of Hoort in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is one example of how local authorities and citizens can share in the financial benefits of the energy transition. The availability of suitable land, a high degree of transparency and campaigning by local politicians fostered support for the wind farm within the community and local authorities, who will receive a share of its profits. Revenue from the wind farm has been earmarked for renovations to the local kindergarten, among other projects. As is often the case, only a small number of locals actually acquired shares in the wind farm in Hoort, as many households simply did not have sufficient capital. Our analysis suggests that indirect financial participation through local government entities should be complemented by instruments such as reduced electricity pricing in order to facilitate the indirect financial participation of private households, get ahead of potential conflicts between transition winners and losers, and lay the foundations for a fair transformation.

Forum Energiedialog (FED) is a programme established by the state of Baden-Württemberg to support municipalities seeking to resolve energy transition conflicts through participatory dialogue. The programme is now in its third legislative period and has helped over 100 municipalities to negotiate renewables projects. The strength of this programme is its commitment to openness and impartiality, ensuring that all views on are heard. This boosts the legitimacy of decision-making processes and the results on the ground. Due to funding regulations, FED is only allowed to support municipalities during the planning phase, yet it is often when construction works begin that conflicts arise. And while FED undertakes targeted outreach activities, the format’s appeal is not universal and young people remain underrepresented. Our findings shows that acknowledging conflicts in local transformation processes at an early stage and addressing them through conflict-sensitive participation is crucial to securing a just transformation. A variety of approaches is needed in order to reach as many different social groups as possible, backed by more personnel, funding, and administrative capacities at the state and municipal levels.

In Saxony-Anhalt, citizen dialogues are staged as part of the state’s Structural Development Programme. Initiated by the State Chancellery in 2021, this online format aims to give citizens a voice in the setting of investment priorities targeting structural change. While these dialogues have improved the visibility and accessibility of political decision-making processes within a difficult regional transition process, they have also revealed that many citizens perceive a disconnect between policy planning and the reality of structural change in their communities. Participants frequently preferred to focus on concrete issues affecting local communities and the broader region rather than policy interventions relating to structural change. Reconciling the output from these dialogues with existing policy planning and development poses significant challenges for the state’s administration. Our study shows that in order to facilitate a just transformation, we need to develop participation formats that are accessible and appealing to all and ensure they are supported by adequate administrative capacities over the longer term.

Five recommendations

Local authorities and state governments are embracing innovative approaches to material and immaterial participation to facilitate the energy transition. Nevertheless, measures to adapt to climate change as part of the broader energy transition can pose significant challenges for economically underdeveloped communities. Commitment and good ideas cannot make up for the lack of financial, human, and procedural resources that affects many local government entities. Our study offers five concrete recommendations for federal and state governments to strengthen transformation capacities in local government. These levers span three dimensions:

Lever 1: The legal environment

Designating measures to protect the climate and adapt to climate change as joint tasks under Germany’s constitution (Basic Law) would ensure funding certainty for transformation processes at the municipal level. This would both strengthen existing municipal structures and send a clear political message that the success of local transformations is a responsibility shared across all levels of government and a prerequisite for democratic resilience in an age of ecological transformation.

Recommendation 1

Designate transformations as a joint task: We recommend that measures to protect the climate and adapt to climate change be designated as joint tasks under Article 91a (1) of the German Constitution.

Lever 2: Financial support instruments

Following the success of similar initiatives in some federal states, legislation should be adopted at state level to provide for the financial participation of local government entities in the ramp-up of renewables, as this promotes acceptance in communities and encourages public participation.

Recommendation 2

The "Our Energy Transition" Act: We recommend that legislation be enacted to require the financial participation of local authorities in energy transition projects and that municipal investment strategies be developed to ensure that investment returns benefit the public good.

Local government must be empowered to support the ramp-up of renewables at the local level. This could be achieved through the establishment of a Transformation Investment Fund or similar, financed by the federal and /or state government(s). This would enable local government to invest in energy transition project by providing access to loans and risk hedging instruments on favourable terms. Funding could also be used to facilitate the implementation of participation activities at municipal level.

Recommendation 3

Transformation Investment Fund: We recommend the establishment of a dedicated fund to facilitate the financial participation of municipalities and their involvement in the development and implementation of measures to protect the climate and adapt to climate change.

Lever 3: Participation capacities

Well-designed and conflict-sensitive participation formats are needed to ensure that energy transition projects can be democratically negotiated in communities and towns, especially in view of the growing support for right-wing populist movements. Conflicts are a seismograph for the mood and emotional state of a society. Participation in the transformation should be flanked by efforts to develop conflict competence in local government. Support could be provided to local authorities by funding and establishing permanent, dedicated positions within state energy agencies.

Recommendation 4

Transformation Facilitators: Government should fund and establish permanent positions for municipal process facilitators with expertise in the areas of financial participation and conflict-sensitive participatory dialogue. These positions should be embedded within state energy agencies.

Managing participation processes ties up administrative capacities not only at the municipal but also at state level. Organisational changes are needed to improve coordination of the various material and immaterial participation activities at state level. This includes the creation of a central coordination office to bundle competences and coordinate activities across departments and to evaluate participation activities at the state and municipal levels.

Recommendation 5

Coordinate participation in transformations through an interdepartmental approach: We recommend that state administrations establish a central coordination office for participation, tasked with providing technical advice to local government and maintaining an overview of participation measures at the state and municipal levels.

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