Source of cover foto photo: Unsplash/Tod-Rhines

This year at the Green Energy Cooperative we are marking the tenth anniversary of our activities in the field of community energy. In practice, it means that behind us is a decade of work on empowering citizens and local communities to become active participants in the energy market. Our focus is on supporting citizens to produce their energy from the Sun by investing in integrated solar photovoltaic power plants for their homes, or large solar photovoltaic power plants on public buildings by forming energy communities.

To be an active participant in the energy market also means acquiring knowledge about managing your production and consumption, sharing surpluses and having concrete benefits such as energy savings and revenues. In this way, active citizens contribute to energy independence, reduced fossil fuel use and to climate change mitigation. This also ensures more economic activity and revenue retention in the local community. Relevant EU directives and regulations encourage all we have been working on, but it doesn’t work straightforwardly and is not as simple as it may seem. 

We don’t know it, we don’t have it, but we could?

In Croatia prevails low awareness on the benefits of solar energy and insufficient understanding of the process of installation and use of solar power, which is directly related to the amount of green energy produced. With only 2 % of electricity generated from the Sun, we are at the bottom of the EU countries’ ranking, while the EU average in 2022 was 8 %. Our “yellow slice on the cake” that shows the structure of available electricity is so thin that it is barely visible, despite the very large solar potential we have as a country in Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean. This low production is in complete opposite of our potential and that’s why we at ZEZ decided to change that.

Image: Structure of available electricity in The Republic of Croatia in 2022. Source: Renewable Energy Sources-Croatia Association (OIE-H): https://oie.hr/elektroenergetska-kretanja-u-hrvatskoj-u-2022/

Shortly after the “world stopped” due to the coronavirus pandemic, we established a non-profit service for citizens “On the Sunny Side” that brings together all we do at the website nasunčanojstrani.hr. Through the service, we make the process of realization of a solar power plant faster, easier and more financially profitable by advising citizens in making investment decisions. We also provide a turnkey service and group procurement of equipment and installation

In the process of designing our service, we were guided by insights from the field and by several different surveys of public attitudes towards renewable energy sources in Croatia done in 2021. At that time, more than 80 % of respondents did not use renewable energy sources in their households (1), citizens were not familiar with the process of obtaining permits for their own production of electricity (2) or with the concept of energy community, but in principle they were open to joint electricity production with neighbours. The prevailing attitude was that the state insufficiently informs citizens about the possibilities of its electricity production and insufficiently promotes the corresponding incentives.

Over the past year, with the support of Google.org, we have further digitised and improved the service “On the Sunny Side” to bring the benefits of solar power plants as close as possible to as many people in Croatia. The key to the energy transition is not only in new or advanced technology but also in people who have the knowledge and motivation to use all its potential.

How do you “switch” as many citizens as possible to the sunny side?

We developed and implemented our activities in two directions. The first direction is a set of “soft” but essential activities of different ways of education and advanced use of digital infrastructure. For example, this is the free Solar Literacy course of seven modules available to everyone on the service’s website, which we developed out of a series of our webinars and live lectures.

More than 80 % of our workshop participants say that it is now much easier for them to explain to their friends the benefits of solar energy and the process of setting up a power plant; and that they are more motivated to use solar energy than before.

We have also digitised our processes by introducing a customer management system, which significantly increases our efficiency. Now we can address the issues described before in a way that is more modern, flexible and faster than the “analogue” way. Our education and assistance package encourage actions and change of behaviour of citizens and ultimately increase the number of installed power plants.

Impressions of citizens – participants of education

-For me, the influence of the workshops was that it helped me decide to use renewable energy sources and to start installing a solar power plant for my household needs.

-Now I’m thinking about putting photovoltaics on my house and opening a company that will sell and install PV.

-I’m going to talk to neighbours about working on a joint smaller solar power plant in our neighbourhood.

The second direction is a set of activities that have increased the visibility of our service and in general the benefits of using solar energy in households.

We have upgraded the content and functions of the website with a lot of useful information for citizens. We improved the solar calculator that provides initial information on the cost-effectiveness of investment. We set up information about fifty partners important in the solar value chain – from designers and installers to suppliers of equipment. And we created the already mentioned Solar Literacy course.

We also got out to the streets of about thirty cities with our Good Energy Tour. In addition to the “Sunny Living Room” intended for citizens, during the Tour we held workshops with representatives of local self-government on their role in the solarization of cities.

Impression of a representative of local government, participant of an educational workshop for cities on the good energy tour

We as employees of cities have to cover very diverse activities and often, especially in smaller cities, cannot follow legal changes or the trends in a very specific field such as energy. By going through the education and the solar literacy modules of ZEZ, we had the opportunity to gain the basic knowledge we need, and more importantly, about the role of local communities in the solarization process. In addition, it is most useful for me to know that we have someone behind us as professional support. I can always contact ZEZ for help as a reliable source of information. For example, their solar calculator is also a great help, which I regularly use in direct contact with citizens who want to install solar panels in Poreč.

Gordana Lalić 
PARENTIUM Ltd.
City of Poreč-Parenzo 

The key to a just and inclusive energy transition is people who are informed, possess knowledge and have the available support to decide and implement change toward their own energy production. Young people are also important not only because the energy transition directly affects their future, but also because some of them are in the phase of choosing further education and occupation paths. There is a wide range of green jobs related to solar energy such as design, installations, smart management and storage systems, hence we have implemented a part of our education in secondary vocational schools in Istria, one of the two Croatian regions selected for the use of the EU Just Transition Fund.

Impressions of students and professors of the Industrial and Crafts School Pula, Gymnasiums and vocational schools Labin and Buje School of Commerce – participants of educational workshops in Pula

The lecture was worth it, I learned a lot. This has helped me a lot and I think I’m going to install my solar panels.

The lecture was interesting, it is the future and it is good for students to know that there is also this possibility for further career development.

The lecture was very instructive and provides a good starting point; it will come in handy and will inspire them for further education and work.

Photo/ZEZ: Istrian high school students – solar literacy education participants

One of the biggest advantages of this project for ZEZ, but also for our users, is certainly the digitalization of the service “On the Sunny Side”.  Now citizens and employees of city administrations have easier access and can visit our improved website at any time. We have created a sustainable infrastructure for education as the largest long-term outcome of a project, directly affecting the knowledge, awareness and motivation of users and contributing to the change of behaviour in energy management.

Our results in numbers

    • Our content and educational activities have reached over 14.000 citizens thus helping them decide on investing in a solar power plant.
    • More than 10.000 people viewed education content on ZEZ’s YouTube channel.
    • The Solar Calculator was used by more than 4000 users; about 100 attendees of Solar Literacy e-learning modules passed the test and got a certificate.
    • We conducted about twenty in-person educations with specific target groups – with Istrian high school students and with city officials on the Good Energy tour.
    • We have ensured the installation of almost 1 MW of new solar power plants on family houses.
    • We have created a network of over 50 partners in the solar power value chain.
    • We have included 20 new cities in our network of Good Energy Cities thus encouraging them to additionally support their citizens in the use of solar energy.
    • We reached nearly one million citizens through our social network channels

 

 

Scheme: What we have invested and what we have achieved: our results in numbers.

 

From “Maybe” to “YES!” for solar energy

The important impact of the project is two-fold: on one hand, it managed to shift many people from “Maybe” to “YES!” towards green energy; and on the other hand, it tested and proved the mechanism of how to do it in a specific context. 

It is also essential to understand the role of the community in a bottom-up, community-driven change context. It was the website and the entire service On the Sunny Side that connected different actors in the community of experts, public administration employees, craftsmen, schools, entrepreneurs, installers and citizens themselves who were given space to communicate and have easy access to knowledge and support. 

With the support of Google.org in this project we have enabled the community to possess and easily access resources, which is the largest and most sustainable created impact that directly reflects on users and contributes to change. Visit us On the Sunny Side because the Sun is free and available for everyone who knows how to use it!

(1) Slijepčević, Sunčana and Kordej-De Villa, Željka (2021). “Public attitudes towards renewable energy sources in Croatia”, in Economic impacts of the development of renewable energy sources, URL: https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/23/8111 .
(2) https://www.iusinfo.hr/aktualno/dnevne-novosti/matic-gra%C4%91anima-ugradnju-solarnih-panela-otezavaju-zakoni-i-nedostatak-financija-52911
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