Interacting locally, acting globally: Trust and proximity in social networks for the development of energy communities

Rocco Caferra, Annarita Colasante, Idiano D’Adamo, Andrea Morone & Piergiuseppe Morone - Credits for the image to Ana Gabriela Encino
Published in Sustainability
Interacting locally, acting globally: Trust and proximity in social networks for the development of energy communities

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The development of energy communities is critical for the transition towards sustainable energy systems, as such communities promote economic, environmental, and social goals. The 2019 Clean Energy Package of the European Union emphasized the necessity of active citizen cooperation in formulating effective energy policies. In this vein, energy communities and joint self-consumption programs can enhance sustainability on various levels, thereby supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The shift from centralized to decentralized energy systems (e.g., energy communities) involves more than a technological and economic process; it is also significantly dependent on individual participation. Behavioral research suggests that personal values and attitudes have a substantial influence on pro-environmental engagement. Consequently, even policies that offer a great economic benefit may fail if they are met with apathy or neglect.

The social context in which individuals reside and the opinions of their peers may have a large impact on their decisions to act cooperatively. The literature suggests that individuals tend to vote similarly to those with whom they engage – often showing alignment with the prevailing sentiment in their neighborhood. This implies that peer pressure can significantly influence the decision to join an energy community, which demands high coordination and cooperation.

Given these insights, our recently published study aimed at addressing the relatively underexplored impact of social norms on the formation of energy communities. Specifically, it investigated the influence of social context and demand factors on individual willingness to join an energy community, using a sample of Italian citizens as a case in point.

The research applied social capital theories, considering the nature, quality, and quantity of human interactions as potential motivators for citizen engagement. In more detail, it utilized a three-part social capital framework involving structural social capital (i.e., network ties), relational capital (i.e., trust quality), and cognitive social capital (i.e., norms and shared values within the network).

We hypothesized that civic norms, trust, and social relationships would serve as primary drivers for social and economic growth, fostering sustainable actions and values. Energy communities, which place humans at the heart of electricity consumption, embody new social models for the ecological transition. While economic analyses have quantified the profits associated with these communities, new models are needed to determine the distribution of these profits.

The results of our research indicated that social capital theories – considering structural social capital, relational capital, and cognitive social capital – may be valuable for understanding the nature, quality, and quantity of human interactions that drive engagement in energy communities. Additionally, the findings suggested that joint energy consumption may depend on the social context, as family and social networks seem to play a significant role in determining individual willingness to participate in an energy community.

Furthermore, the results showed that individuals residing in an urban environment are more likely to model low-carbon lifestyles, and the propensity to join an energy community increases with age. Furthermore, young adults may refrain from joining energy communities due to financial constraints and a lack of long-term commitment. To address this issue, our study proposed a policy to develop rental housing within energy communities located in university areas.

Finally, the study concluded that socio-institutional factors are relevant to energy communities, as they operate as legal entities within a larger socio-legal framework. To establish trust in politics, shared participatory models, future-oriented choices, and the realization of sustainable communities are essential. Additionally, certainty regarding incentive policies, reduced bureaucracy, and fewer constraints on the power grid are necessary for the effective implementation of autonomous and decentralized electricity systems.

In conclusion, the development of energy communities requires a multifaceted approach that considers not only technical and economic aspects, but also social, cultural, and organizational factors. By incorporating these elements, energy communities can effectively contribute to the transition towards sustainable energy systems and promote a more equitable and environmentally conscious society.

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