Three core concerns emerged from our interviews and observations. The core concerns are what justice issues in RECs are generally about: risk, effort and power.
We understand risk as the chance of negative consequences for a participant, such as financial loss, property damage or troubles with other people that can happen as a result of entering an REC. We understand effort as the time and work that participants put into maintaining or improving the REC. We understand power as the ability of participants to influence affairs and decisions within the REC.
We observed that whether the justice issues were seen as problematic or not depended on the balance of the impact of these core concerns of the participants. There seemed to be two justice equilibria, in which the state of affairs was considered just. The first equilibrium is a state where participants are exposed to low risk, with low effort required from them, whilst having a low amount of power in the REC. The second justice equilibrium is where participants are exposed to a high risk, with a lot of effort required from them and have a high amount of power in the REC. We will now describe how these just equilibria were manifested in our cases, as well as how unjust states of affairs emerged. We will describe three states of affairs which were experienced as just by members, with regard to the internal functioning of the REC. We exclude concerns of justice regarding issues external to the REC, like whether participants felt their REC was treated justly by legislation of the country they were in.
Community Heroes: High Risk, High Effort, High Power
Some RECs consisted of very active and risk-taking members. One of our cases, Nautilus in Amsterdam, had initially involved a very high risk for participants. In the planning phase, when the group had been established in order to design, plan and finance the building of the house, each member contributed 16,000 euros, with a risk of losing the money. As time passed and more of the money was spent, the chance of getting the money back decreased. Some inhabitants described the stress that was caused by various disappointments, like the social housing corporation which pulled out of the project or the miscalculation of costs leading to a sudden need to cut 2 million. For Nautilus, the heating installation posed a large financial and technical risk. The risk materialized after the construction when many defects were discovered, including a large leak. Having the leak fixed required, according to the inhabitants at the time of the interviews, juridical action against the contractor.
The housing complex and the heating system took a lot of effort to build and still takes a lot of effort to maintain. Various mistakes of the contractor in building were found afterwards and took a long time to get fixed. Some inhabitants expressed a desire to carry out less house-related duties.
Although participants took great efforts and high risk, what they got in return was a substantial amount of power within the cooperative. In Nautilus we saw the justice equilibrium high risk high effort high power. Nautilus works with a decision making process, designed by a member, based on consensus which does not conform to the legal standard of voting in cooperatives. Every person in the cooperative has a veto power on all decisions. This means that one person can block any decision, and if that happens then the majority must propose an acceptable alternative to the disagreeing person. The interviewees viewed this system as being more democratic than voting. One of them mentioned that the reason they had to put an emphasis on democracy was the sensitivity of the financing of the project, especially at the beginning. This narrative portrays the sentiment that if everyone takes a big risk, then they must be given enough say about how things are done. This supports the idea that RECs sometimes compensate for risk with decision-making power.
Some of our case studies were “living lab” projects, which meant that the project was aimed at experimenting with new technologies. In the Svalin community in Denmark and Brainport Smart District in Eindhoven, the innovativeness of the technology and the risk it caused was also met with a movement towards extensive consent-driven procedures. Voting was considered too limiting. BSD and Svalin also had extensive discussions on how the decision making structure should be.
In Svalin this discussion was prompted by an event. A vote was held on whether the communal dinners should be vegetarian. The vote resulted in a decision for allowing meat, which led to a very active household leaving the community. After this, the community began working with other ways of voting, instead of relying on for and against votes, which were considered too limited. While debating power structures explicitly among members can be considered more empowering than sticking to an uncontested power structure, it is not always practical especially in large communities. The case studies that did this were all smaller in size.
Sleeping Members: Low Risk, Low Effort, Low Power
Other cases consisted of less active and less risk-taking members. We found that some cases imposed a low risk on participants, required low effort and granted participants low power. This was not felt to be unjust by participants. It is alright to have little influence in something which imposes little risk on you and requires little effort.
HC Wroclaw adopts a minimally democratic but easy strategy because of a general adversity to change among residents and employees. All projects are carefully prepared by the project team to avoid resistance. Any risks in the project and sources of possible resistance are identified. The practice shows that a relatively small number of active and organized members can effectively implement changes by building a rhetorical advantage. The vast majority, therefore, is not granted much power in the process, other than a vote.
In HC Wroclaw and EnerGent, which are big communities, decision-making structure is set and stuck to according to legal default. This default consists of a board and the possibility for members to vote on issues. Power is centralized and this structure is not contested. In EnerGent, there is a formal democracy as each member has in principle one vote per issue, and there is a general assembly once a year. However, the agenda is set by a limited group of members who, because they possess specific resources (e.g. technical, juridical knowledge) represent the community as a whole and act on their behalf. In the case of eER, the formal hierarchy also follows fixed statutes: the board is appointed (for three years with the possibility of re-appointment) and recalled by the supervisory board. The supervisory board is elected by the general assembly for three years with the possibility of re-election.
However, the residents in eER, EnerGent and HC Wroclaw did not generally find it problematic that their democratic control was minimal. This is because not much risk was taken by the majority of participants and not much effort was required. Therefore, there was not much at stake for most participants. HC Wroclaw had removed most of the risk and burden to members. HC Wroclaw used a pilot project to eliminate some technology-related risks. A pilot project led to the discovery of a flaw in the attachments of photovoltaics, which would have caused the roof to leak. The project was also financially de-risked due to an external funding partner. The governance structure was traditional and legally supported. Participation in EnerGent is to a large extent de-risked. 60% of investments are covered by the project funds. The project involved only tests under simulated circumstances (e.g. simulated dynamic prices) so there was no substantial risk for the households. The project also targeted low income participants and used a similar strategy as HC Wroclaw. The low amount of power for participants, in these cases, is compensated by the lack of risk and lack of burden for, making the situation acceptable to our interviewees.
The dynamic of power compensating for risk and effort can also be observed at the level of individual decisions on how much to participate in the REC. HC Wroclaw, EnerGent and eER all involved community-hero residents who participated in the board, and a host of sleeping members, who participated less. Those who took functions as board members were often accepting of the fact that other members did not put in as much work as they did. The board members, individually, had more power, in return for their effort. The fact that most members did not participate actively was not seen as a problem in these cases. As one of the block leaders in HC Wroclaw commented “it is natural for such a sizable organization that most of the persons do not get involved proactively in the community life.” eER’s board consisted of only three members out of a total of 230 members. The board members stated that their commitments amount to a lot of work, but they do not perceive this distribution as unfair. They perceive their individual workload a contribution to Germany’s energy transition.
Unjust State of Affairs: High Risk, High Effort, Low Power
When risk, effort and power were not well balanced, participants in our cases experienced unfairness. If one takes a large risk and puts a lot of effort into an REC, but still has a low level of influence, one may feel wronged. Intuitively, it seems like this is justifiable.Footnote 3
An example of this occurred within Brainport Smart District. In the project, which is participative and co-creation-focused regarding other areas than energy too, the risk for the participants was framed as a part of their conscious choice to “pioneer” in “the smartest district in the world.” Many of the participants were comfortable taking risks, as long as they would get to choose how their district would look.
Initially, participants believed to be part of a high risk, high effort, high power project. This justice equilibrium only fell apart at the moment that a lack of clarity and information within the BSD project as a whole constrained the future residents’ ability to plan and take action. The multitude of other parties and their indecision made the future residents structurally powerless. At this point, the system became a high risk high effort low power -system, which was perceived as unjust by participants.
Individuals within RECs can also experience an individual lack of due power for the risk one takes and the effort one puts in. A resident of Nautilus expressed sympathy for the idea that those who put in effort should have more influence. He felt that the extensive democratic procedures, which were in place to increase each members power, were in some sense failing the people who were putting in effort, or taking initiative. “I am used to it being so that the one with the paint bucket decides what color the walls are, that initiatives are encouraged. And that there is a lack of initiatives, so the people who take initiatives get the freedom to do it the way they want. But here that is completely turned around… …What happens now is that people come in with an initiative, and then there are always 2 or 4 people who say: we’re not doing that. And that changes the initiative… …And there is a meeting and eventually your nice initiative turns to some grey mash… … There is so much resistance against everything” This highlights a possible perspective where equally distributed power is felt as unjust since some members put in more effort than others.
Individuals could end-up in an unjust situation also due to being exposed to a larger risk than other participants. In Brainport Smart District differing levels of commitment among the future residents caused an unequal distribution of risk. A participant stepping out of the project would mean a re-planning for everyone. If one person steps out, there is one household less, which requires spatial and energy-related re-organization, costing time and possibly money for participants. Some of the very committed members perceived the lack of commitment from others as a risk for themselves.
Different people have different needs for becoming empowered. One participant at BSD worried that the wishes of certain people were being ignored, because those people are shyer or less loud in meetings. An interviewee from Nautilus echoed a similar worry “If two people voice an opinion very passionately, then they often get what they want.”
Apart from differences in sociability or rhetorical skill, difference in knowledge and know-how were also mentioned as factors that determine the level of empowerment. According to the statutes of eER, any member of the community can be elected supervisory board member or appointed board member. However, in practice, executive roles require expertise in business, administration and energy technology. Because of this, some participants found it difficult to participate in the community in these circumstances. BSD participants expressed similar worries. This goes to show that some members in communities can have needs regarding type of dialogue, use of terminology and atmosphere, which are not always recognized by others. Personal differences, therefore, can sometimes limit the power of individuals within an REC, causing some members to lack due power individually.