Copyright City of Ghent

Ghent combats the energy crisis

“People experienced the energy crisis as a shock, as a financial shock and also as how vulnerable the reliance on fossil fuels can make us,” says Mathias De Clercq, Mayor of Ghent. The impact, he explains, was felt not just by those living in poverty but by a much wider population: “Those with good incomes, and entrepreneurs were also hit hard, with businesses such as bakeries especially suffering.”

Ghent is pulling out all the stops to combat this crisis, working with local people, small and medium-sized businesses, and international industries to find immediate solutions and create long-term change.

City administrations, says Vice-Mayor of Ghent, Tine Heyse, feel the urgency of global crisis most acutely: “If you work at the local level, there’s no other way than to deal with it because your people are involved.” This proximity to the people, Heyse insists, also makes cities uniquely well-placed to find effective solutions to these challenges.

Mathias De Clercq, Mayor of Ghent
Mathias De Clercq, Mayor of Ghent

Cities tackling the energy crisis, especially through collaboration with industry and other actors, is to be the focus of the Eurocities Environment Forum, occurring this week. You can learn more and join the livestream of the forum’s keynotes and debates here.

Power for people

One of the primary concerns of Ghent’s response to the energy crisis is social justice. As Heyse notes, “we know that the energy crisis will hit the most vulnerable much more, so we’re concerned about that.” Therefore, Ghent has quickly acted to help people with both short-term and long-term solutions to reduce their energy bills.

We know that the energy crisis will hit the most vulnerable
— Tine Heyse

One of the most successful programmes is the ‘Energiecentrale,’ which serves as a one-stop-shop for all questions related to energy-efficient home improvements. This includes not only financial support but also guidance on overcoming other barriers, such as understanding what renovations are feasible for their home. “We give them energy loans, and we even search for contractors if they want,” says Heyse.

This approach, says Mayor De Clercq, raises awareness among locals about how they can lower their energy consumption not only through home renovations but also through small changes in their daily lives, such as taking shorter showers. “That’s something very, very concrete,” he emphasises.

However, Ghent’s response goes beyond just providing resources for home renovations. They have also focused on education and citizen science, working with local people to gather data to improve sustainability.

The city has engaged over 50 groups in talks on how to quickly reduce energy bills, and has launched a citizen science project that allows locals to share their daily energy use with Energiecentral. This data lets the city monitor the effectiveness of renovations in reducing energy use to improve future interventions.

Energy experiments

Ghent has also been a leader in piloting approaches to renewable energy, often teaming up with energy cooperatives to try out new ideas. For example, in the Solar City project, Ghent worked with the energy co-op EnerGent at neighbourhood level to install as many solar panels as possible on people’s roofs.

Adding residents to the mix, the city has experimented with ‘power purchase agreements’ for solar panels. In this model, locals invest in solar panels and become shareholders in solar infrastructure that provides power to municipal buildings. The city has also partnered with youth organisations to create energy co-ops to equip their properties with solar panels.

I thought I had good ideas, but sometimes they don't work.
— Tine Heyse

Interventions like this don’t always go smoothly, and Heyse notes that one of the advantages of working at the local level is the ability to see what works and what doesn’t. “To give a very personal example,” she confesses, “I have worked at the European, international, and federal levels. Now I’m working at the local level, and sometimes I think, ‘Oh my God, I was doing things from behind my desk, I thought I had good ideas, but sometimes they don’t work.’”

For instance, Heyse points to Ghent’s attempt to engage all the people in one area to renovate their homes at the same time. “It seems like a good idea because of the economy of scale,” she says, “but in practice, people’s needs and situations are so diverse that it’s not always practical to act at once.” On the other hand, the city has found success in promoting group investment at the level of the apartment block.

Industrious industry

As with its collaboration with locals, Ghent has been making strides towards addressing the energy crisis through collaboration with industry. “To reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, we need to cooperate with the industry, and stimulate cooperation between companies,” De Clercq says. Together, they can tackle the challenges of carbon reduction, sustainability, and circular economy.

We need to cooperate with industry
— Mathias De Clercq

To some, the challenge of lowering emissions while hosting the longest port in Europe, the North Sea Port, which stretches over 60 kilometres from the Netherlands into Belgium, would be daunting. However, Mayor De Clercq welcomes it as an ideal place to develop a circular economy. “For example,” he says, “the exchange of heat, CO2, and hydrogen between companies is playing a key role in the transition to a low carbon economy.”

Heyse sees the close collaboration between the port and the city as key to this effort. “We can push them in the right direction, helping them define a climate neutral strategy. Now there is a vision and a lot is happening,”

Heyse also points to the example of the Smart Delta Resources project, which brings together large companies to work on the circular economy, as well as the Capture project, which does the same but also includes research institutions. “Working together with universities, is also extremely important,” Heyse emphasised. The city’s role as a co-founder and a partner in these networks allows it to contribute to circular economy innovations.

When it comes to smaller companies, the city offers opportunities like energy coaching projects to help them implement the findings of energy audits. While financing sustainability in large companies is beyond the city’s budget, Ghent finds that a little stimulus in a small company can go a long way.

Our noses are all pointing in the same direction
— Mathias De Clercq

Whether with large or small companies, says De Clercq, “Ghent has always been a pioneer in working with the private sector and testing things. We have made it top of mind, and offered stimulation, so now our noses are all pointing in the same direction.”

A Europe of cities

Ghent is not just focusing on the energy needs of its own residents but also collaborating across the EU and farther afield. “Solidarity is deep in Ghent’s DNA,” De Clercq insists. When news came through last winter of the massive energy outages in Ukraine, due to the Russian invasion, the city was quick to act. Ghent collected and sent 14 generators to Ukraine as part of Eurocities and the European Parliament’s Generators of Hope campaign. “Cities have the power to act concretely and make a direct impact,” says De Clercq.

However, among other immediate supports, Ghent is also engaging with the Belgian Government and the European Commission to provide support for long-term rebuilding of Ukraine. “Together with Eurocities, we’re putting pressure to do more and support Ukraine in a financial and diplomatic way,” says De Clercq. The associated project, Sustainable Rebuilding of Ukrainian Cities, will see cities across Europe share resources and expertise with their Ukrainian counterparts.

It's important that the European vision for a just energy transition leads to actual change
— Mathias De Clercq

Ghent’s work at the European level is also focused on internal matters. “It’s important that the European vision for a just energy transition leads to actual change on the ground,” de Clercq says. He wants to see stronger collaboration between local, national and European levels of government. “As cities,” he says, “we know what is needed and play a key role in the implementation of measures taken at the EU level.”

De Clercq points to the Covid crisis, where cities acted rapidly to gather volunteers and put testing and vaccination in place, as well as finding ways to boost local businesses and ensure a hygienic environment. This, he says, is just one example of how rapid and effective city governments can be. “The future is a dialectic between Europe and cities, and there is no Europe without cities,” De Clercq declares.

Whether with industry, local people, academia or the European Institutions, Ghent sees collaboration as vital for responding to the energy crisis. The key, De Clercq says, to successful collaboration is to “listen to the other’s ideas and find common ground to work together.” When all parties are ready to take this approach, “we can all work together to achieve meaningful change for a sustainable future.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer