The city of Utrecht has set ambitious renewable energy targets as part of a healthy city concept in which sustainable and affordable energy is a high priority. By 2020 the city aims to increase supply of sustainable energy to 20% and fit solar panels to 10% of the buildings. The city recognized that the new energy plan must have democratic legitimacy and needs support by the residents.

Residents given responsibility for energy plan

Utrecht initiated a democratic experiment to share and broaden responsibility for creating an energy plan to help it become climate neutral by 2030. Entrusting this task to citizens has shaken up traditional thinking, generated novel ideas and created ambassadors for sustainable energy.

After deciding to hand over responsibility for the drawing up of its new plan to citizens, the city undertook a random selection process. As well as ensuring a mixed representation in terms of age, area, gender and income, this process also overcame a problem common to participatory projects: people with a special interest tend to put themselves forward. If the plan was to fit the city and deliver results, it had to be developed by those representative of the silent majority. The city initially contacted 10,000 people from its database and around 1,000 of these agreed to participate and a lottery reduced this number to 200. In the end, 165 citizens attended all three sessions of the City Talks.

It is about getting everyone involved so we had to reach the silent majority – Monique Hoogwijk, Programme Manager, ‘Utrecht Energy!’

Over the course of three Saturdays the group took part in discussions and workshops, facilitated by the city and led by an independent moderator. An ‘information market’ created more understanding for the city’s energy options. Energy experts were present to explain the practical realities of their ideas and representatives from energy companies, social housing associations and the local university were also involved as speakers, advisors and participants.

Thinking outside the box

pic2The first Saturday was a knowledge-sharing day and the creative thinking resulted in a smart plan for energy prices that rewards ‘leaders’ with financial benefits and ‘loafers’ with high costs, to a maze made of solar panels designed as a tourist attraction. In the second session experts were called on to answer specific technical and cost queries and the measures were ranked based on constraints and time.

The resulting draft plan was reviewed and refined at the final City Talk. What has already been broadly agreed is that residents have added value to the process. By thinking afresh and in an integrated way about energy from the user’s perspective, they have generated ideas that the city council would not have thought of itself.

Rising to the challenge

Utrecht has been well rewarded for its €400,000 investment in the project. The resulting energy plan includes proposals the city would not have dared suggest otherwise, such as forcing entire areas to switch to alternative fuels rather than renovating existing gas pipelines. Council departments are now working together in a more coordinated way and it has stronger connections with the city’s energy players. For these partners, experiencing citizens’ perspectives and the plan’s development has given them a sense of ownership that can only be positive as they play their part in the implementation.

97 percent of the participants were happy with the organization of the City Talks and the success has encouraged Utrecht to involve citizens in decision-making in a similar way in other policy areas. In the meantime it has 165 citizen ‘ambassadors’ ready to help implement their energy plan and another City Talk to set up in early 2016 to look at early results and next steps.