Climate issues may seem trivial now that Russia has brought war back to Europe with an unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine. The consequences of war and geopolitical power play, however, do impact all Europeans. Energy prices are skyrocketing, scarcity of agricultural goods, and not the least, the ever-present stress of violence paints the picture in Europe.
With REPowerEU (8 March 2022), the European Commission has proposed an outline to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030, starting with gas. Never was the call for a truly independent energy system this urgent, where energy efficiency, renewables and energy flexibility are the driving forces for the acceleration to a clean energy transition.
Becoming energy independent requires full decarbonisation of the existing building stock in Europe. A key priority is thus the redesign and retrofit of our existing buildings and neighbourhoods, making them future proof. Positive Energy Neighbourhoods (PEN) are highly energy-efficient and flexible urban neighbourhoods, in which buildings, energy systems and mobility infrastructure work in harmony to achieve a surplus production of renewable energy. Full decarbonisation of the building sector will require a broad penetration of PEN and related innovations – this is where the oPEN Lab project plays an important role.
In oPEN Lab, three open innovation living labs in the cities of Genk (BE), Pamplona (ES) and Tartu (EE) are being realised, demonstrating the feasibility of promising technologies, processes, and social innovations, leading toward PENs and paving the way for wider replication.
As the first steps are taken, the first challenges arise as well. Not the least for the local citizens’ engagement. Although tailored to the local social and cultural context and its existing collaborative structures, gaining trust is a challenge. Not only for the implementation of oPEN Lab but also for the technologies. The transition of underprivileged neighbourhoods to Positive Energy Neighbourhoods faces mismatches i) between retrofit technologies and residents’ energy practices, and ii) between residents and those actors planning and implementing solutions.
When speaking with tenants, reality kicks in…asking what kind of heating a lady prefers, she answers “it is a pity they closed the coal mines, as my coal-fired stove was very comfortable and easy to use”. So, we dig deeper…what are her concerns, her dreams, and how would she like to be involved throughout the process? A wish all citizens share is to be properly involved, their concerns to be considered and a positive (energy) future.
The thorough involvement of the citizens, combined with the technical expertise and agility of the partners are oPEN Lab’s ingredients for a resilient future, alleviating the consequences of the geopolitical power play. Join us in leading the transition to PENs and a fair and resilient Europe.
Our thoughts are with the unspeakable suffering of the Ukrainian people.
Maarten De Groote – oPEN Lab coordinator