Citizen ideas on energy transition

19. September 2022
Werner Warmuth

In Freiburg, Germany's first cross-municipality citizens' assembly presented recommendations for the accelerated expansion of renewable energies in the Freiburg region on 20 September 2022. 91 randomly selected citizens had participated in the "Climate Assembly Freiburg Region". They formulated 48 suggestions for climate protection.

For the field of wind power, the citizens recommend the immediate use of all areas designated in the Baden-Württemberg Wind Atlas for the construction of wind turbines. The Wind Atlas can be used to find areas that are suitable for the construction of wind turbines due to the prevailing wind conditions.

Using sealed surfaces for solar energy

In the area of using solar systems on open spaces, a recommendation by the climate assembly received the most support, calling on the municipal, regional, district and state levels to immediately check any sealed openflaces for suitability for solar power generation and to use all possible areas.

The assembly participants also want industrial waste heat to be used by means of district heating for nearby residential areas and other energy consumers. In addition, plus-energy standards should be striven for in future buildings in the region. More energy is generated on the building and its grounds, for example by using the sun's energy, than is drawn from outside, for example in the form of electricity, gas, heating oil or wood fuels. The assembly members also thought about storage possibilities for renewable energies and organisational forms of the energy transition.

"Grassroots democratic formats"

A suitable transfer of knowledge should provide the framework for the expansion of renewable energies in the region. The assembly members recommend that the municipalities create analogue and digital channels of information and discussion. The knowledge transfer and exchange of experience with the goal of 100 % renewable energies by 2030 should be made possible through this. In this context, the participants of the climate assembly recommend the "establishment of grassroots democratic formats to solicit opinions and recommendations", referring to the example of their own citizens' assembly.

The climate assembly consisted of residents of the city of Freiburg and 15 surrounding municipalities. In autumn 2021, the municipalities from the districts of Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald and Emmendingen as well as the city of Freiburg decided to commission a regional climate assembly. The decisions were based on the persuasive efforts of the initiative "Bürger:innenrat Region Freiburg".

Representation of the population

The assembly participants met for five sessions between May and July 2022. The Alliance for VALUE-Oriented Democracy (AllWeDo) was responsible for the implementation and organisation. 4,000 residents of the 16 participating municipalities were randomly selected from the municipal population registers and invited to apply to participate in the citizens' assembly.

On the basis of the applications received, AllWeDo invited 91 people to participate, who were to represent the population of Baden-Württemberg as well as possible according to the characteristics of age, gender, educational and migration background. However, this was not successful for all criteria. For example, the proportion of people with a lower secondary school-leaving certificate or no school-leaving certificate was only 17.7 percent instead of the targeted 39.6 percent. People with a migration background make up 34.2 per cent of the region's population, but were only represented in the citizens' assembly with a share of 19 per cent. These deficits are justified by a lack of money and personnel.

Mehr Demokratie: Better funding needed

According to Sarah Händel, state director of the association "Mehr Demokratie" in Baden-Württemberg, better funding by the municipalities could have enabled more outreach participation. This involves visiting people directly at home who do not apply for a citizens' assembly on their own initiative, in order to overcome any hurdles and encourage them to participate. This will especially reach citizens who also stay away from other participation processes and elections. "That such an innovative process of participation has received so little publicity is regrettable," says Händel. More resources for inter-communal public relations would have been important here to involve the broad population and increase the likelihood that the good results will be implemented in the end.

Nevertheless, the citizens' assembly has succeeded in reaching completely new target groups, emphasised the conceptual director Marina Leibfried. In a survey, the participants had declared that they had not been involved before. Stefan Falk from Elzach and Carola Sauerland had also never taken part in citizen participation processes before: The two were two of the 91 randomly selected citizens.

Work in the citizens' assembly has "stirred things up"

The work in the citizens' assembly had "shaken her up", said Carola Sauerland, and "flipped a switch": She could no longer close her eyes and would continue to work for more climate protection - also to leave a better world for the next generation. This was also a motivation of Stefan Falk, who is the father of four children. He praised the democratic process of the citizens' assembly and does not see such bodies as competition to the local councils at all, but as a complement.

The participating citizens were introduced to the topic of energy transition in 25 presentations by experts. This was followed by moderated discussions in small groups on what they had heard. The topics discussed were "Solar on and on buildings", "Solar on open spaces", "Wind power", "Energy saving" and "Other renewable energies", such as hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy. Higher-level cross-cutting issues such as skilled workers, communication and organisational forms of the energy transition, such as citizens' cooperatives, were also highlighted.

Advisory board accompanied process

A broad-based advisory board accompanied the process and suggested the experts. Marina Leibfried is convinced that this contributed decisively to the quality of the process: "Many people thought along with us to make the citizens' assembly good. Participants were also able to ask for expert input."

In the coming months, the participants of the climate assembly will present the results of their deliberations in the municipal council meetings of all 16 participating municipalities.

Strategy group and citizens' cafés

However, the presentation of the assemblies recommendations did not mark the end of the process. In order to strengthen inter-municipal cooperation in implementing the recommendations and to plan further steps, a strategy group met before the end of the year 2022. Each municipality sent one or two representatives to this group.

In addition, so-called citizens' cafés took place, in which an exchange between citizens and municipal councils on the recommendations took place. Within the framework of the strategy group and the citizens' cafés, implementation possibilities and challenges were to be identified and then addressed in the region.

Fourth cross-municipal climate assembly

The Climate Assembly Freiburg Region is the fourth cross-municipal climate assembly internationally. On 24 May 2022, the regional council of the French association of municipalities Est Ensemble, which consists of nine municipalities, adopted and decided on numerous recommendations of the local climate assembly.

The citizens' assembly had met from September 2021 to January 2022. 100 randomly selected citizens from the region had met over five weekends to propose concrete measures to combat climate change. Only twelve of the 220 proposals put forward by the citizens' assembly were not accepted by the Regional Council.

Climate assemblies in the UK

Climate assemblies of a similar nature have also been held in the English Boroughs of Barrow-in-Furness and Warwick, as well as in the North of England, where the focus was on climate change and social housing. With 30 local climate assemblies, the UK is the country with the most lot meetings on this topic. In addition, there were citizens' assemblies on climate protection in Scotland and for the whole of the UK. Worldwide, the association "Mehr Demokratie" has counted 74 climate assemblies so far.

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