Green Party member Renata Vasova works at the local hospice, which has been heating its water with solar energy for two decades. Photo by Lucie Cejkova.

A Czech city leads the way in alternative energy, saving money and improving the air. 

Elementary School U Stadionu (At the Stadium) sits among prefabricated apartment buildings, railway tracks, and, as its name indicates, the local football stadium on the outskirts of Litomerice. A sign in a window celebrates the school’s 50th anniversary, but otherwise it doesn’t look much different from buildings you’d typically see on a Czech housing estate.

But something does set this building apart: Rows of shiny solar panels on its roof.

“From time to time, once or twice a year, the caretaker goes up to the roof and cleans leaves or other stuff from them, but otherwise we don’t have to do anything with them,” says principal Milan Sluka. “We are showing not just the children and their parents, but others too, that solar energy can be used this way.” 

Cities are important actors in combating climate change, and a crucial component of that is transitioning to energy from low-emission sources at an acceptable social cost. In the Czech Republic, cities don’t tend to adopt significant energy measures, and if they do, they tend to be one-off projects. Litomerice is an exception. For more than 20 years, this city of 24,000 an hour’s drive north of Prague has headed down the path of comprehensive changes.

In 2000, Litomerice became the first local administration in the Czech Republic to offer incentives to residents to heat their water with solar energy. Besides the proven financial advantages and energy savings, this benefits the community’s air quality with a gradual move away from fossil fuels. 

U Stadionu School installed its solar panels seven years ago. Two other local schools also have them. The municipal swimming pool and city hall use heat pumps, which, like solar panels, produce energy without air pollution or climate-harming emissions. The city also plans to start using geothermal energy. All this is complemented with smaller measures in public spaces, such as solar-powered parking meters and solar benches, which can be used to charge phones.

The savings generated by low-emission sources in city-owned buildings are used to subsidize solar panels for residents. And the city is currently in the testing phase of one of the country’s most ambitious alternative energy projects, planned to use solar and geothermal power to generate electricity and heat water.

The Sun Brings Savings

Hana Galiova has lived in Litomerice all her life, for the last 11 years in a house that she built with support from her family. She first heard about the subsidized solar water heater program while her house was being built.

“The city advertised that option. At the time we were finishing construction, so we applied for it right away,” Galiova says. She wanted to help both the family budget and the environment. In addition to money from the city, she also applied for a state subsidy, and the two together covered most of the costs. She doesn’t recall any complicated “paper-pushing.”

Single-family homes in Litomerice took advantage of public subsidies to install solar panels. Photo by Lucie Cejkova.

Galiova praises her solar equipment. There are no major issues with upkeep, and she is saving money she otherwise would have been spent on utility bills: “I’m always happy when the sun is shining, because that external source produces both electricity and hot water for us.” A year ago her family became even more energy self-sufficient by installing photovoltaic panels to produce electricity. The state helped pay for those.

Pavel Gryndler heads the city’s environment department. He recalls that after the end of communist rule in 1989, Litomerice was “quite a smoke-filled city.” Coal was a major heat source, “and it was practically impossible to breathe here.”

All of the Czech Republic was in a similar situation. According to Czech Statistical Office data, in 1990 more than half of Czech households used coal for heating. By 2017, that  figure had fallen to 13 percent, and today, only a handful of households still rely on coal.

Lack of Faith

Litomerice first started supporting the transition to natural gas in the 1990s. As gas prices rose, city officials wanted to ensure that people would not revert to coal. They allocated part of the budget for environmental measures directly to homeowners. In 2000, they began offering 20,000 crowns (around $950) to owners of single-family homes and apartment buildings who installed solar hot water heaters.

Through these subsidies, city officials hoped to steer residents toward renewable energy sources in general. 

“The interest was practically zero, though,” Gryndler recalls. “People basically didn’t believe in the sun.” City representatives then launched a PR campaign, holding meetings about the subsidies in the main square where they demonstrated how solar power could heat the water in the city’s historic fountain. Interested residents began getting in touch. Word of mouth was another significant publicity tool.

In 2006, the city’s subsidy grew to 40,000 crowns. To date, residents have used city support to acquire roughly 1,200 solar panels, typically two or three per household.

Financing for the residential solar panel subsidies comes chiefly from a fund supplied with savings from energy-saving measures in municipal buildings, and from the national radioactive waste authority, which compensates the city for a radioactive waste storage site located nearby. The city budget makes up a third, minor source.   

Litomerice also helps residents with other steps related to climate and the environment. Residents can buy compost bins from the city, for example, or receive up to 50,000 crowns to buy a rainwater tank.

In 2011, the city created an energy manager position. The manager’s tasks include monitoring overall energy consumption, evaluating city-owned buildings for energy performance, and preparing proposals.   

It is thanks to the energy manager’s work, for example, that U Stadionu School obtained its solar panels.

“Certainly it’s worth it for cities to have an energy manager,” Mayor Ladislav Chlupac says. He notes that smaller communities don’t have the money to fund such positions, but that associations of municipalities perhaps could share one. 

Lofty Long-Range Goals

On the basis of a detailed energy consumption overview that the city conducts regularly, it has created an energy plan looking forward to 2030. The main targets are reducing total energy consumption by 20 percent compared to 2012, a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a move toward energy self-sufficiency through the use of renewable energy. 

Although only time will tell how such a plan can be fulfilled, Litomerice has gone further than most Czech municipalities with its long-term focus on cleaner energy. The city also outperforms the current Czech national plans. In its 2021 evaluation report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) calls on Czechia to focus more on reducing energy consumption and to create a body to address the relevant measures – something Litomerice has practiced for several years.

Litomerice’s dedication to cleaner energy, however, sometimes bumps up against the centralized Czech energy production system. When the municipality tries to decentralize its energy production by using local, smaller sources, it collides with the imaginary wall of the existing system, where both energy production and the power to control it are concentrated in the hands of a few fossil fuel producers and other large energy companies.

“A greater degree of self-sufficiency would help us,” says Gryndler, the long-time head of the city’s environmental department. He sighs as he describes the many bureaucratic hoops the city must jump through to connect its locally-produced electricity to the national grid.

Although he acknowledges that the state will sometimes help, when asked whether, during his 20 years of work on energy transformation in Litomerice, the overall atmosphere in the Czech Republic has changed to create a more favorable environment for similar activities, Gryndler doesn’t have to think much about the answer: “Basically we still have to push for this by ourselves.”

As both Chlupac and Gryndler point out, Litomerice’s energy-saving measures themselves benefit from several subsidy programs, from the EU to the regional level. Money saved through these measures goes to the city’s energy savings fund, which Mayor Chlupac calls its “perpetual motion machine.” Roughly one-third of the money saved is returned to the budget. Thirty percent goes to the budgets of public entities that contribute to saving energy – for example, the schools with solar panels. Some of the remainder goes to pay bonuses to public employees who contribute most to the project, such as the energy manager, heads of relevant city bureaus, and school principals.

A potential limitation to the city’s energy policy is that it’s tied to one group of civic leaders. The center-right Civic Democratic Party has run the city for the entire lifetime of the energy project. Party member Chlupac has been mayor since 2002, and was elected to the Czech Senate in 2018.

Renata Vasova, the local coordinator for the national anti-corruption movement “Million Moments for Democracy” and a member of the Green Party, which currently seats three opposition members on the city council, doesn’t object to the city’s energy policy. “I believe there’s agreement on that here across the entire political spectrum,” she says. “I don’t think that anybody here has a problem with it.”

Vasova and Green Party city councilor Lenka Simerska would welcome even more intensive information and promotion efforts. “I think the problem is a lack of transparency and communication with citizens that is either not happening, or is complicated when it does happen,” Simerska muses. “The consequence is that the context as a whole is far less understood by people.” 

City officials say they do their best to explain and promote city activities, for example, through public meetings and discussion. City hall also regularly holds meetings on the main square to pass on information about issues related to energy and environmental protection.

Litomerice maintains connections through municipal networks. It is the only Czech member of Energy Cities, a partly EU-funded group that promotes urban energy transformation throughout Europe, and is a signatory of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a document that commits cities and municipalities to not just pursue climate and energy policies that are in line with the European Union’s climate plans, but also to exceed those ambitions. Upwards of 80 local authorities from the Czech Republic have joined the covenant, but just seven have submitted specific plans to meet the covenant’s targets, Litomerice among them. Representatives from abroad pay visits to Litomerice to share experiences – a recent delegation came from Meissen, Germany.

In 2014, Litomerice officials helped establish the Association of Energy Managers of Towns and Municipalities to foster collaboration among Czech cities and their energy managers.

Litomerice has received several domestic and international awards for its progress in energy management, mainly thanks to its solar energy projects. The work continues, with efforts such as the Geosolar project based around using underground “batteries” to store excess energy produced by solar panels in summer to heat buildings in winter. Meanwhile, the new solar panels will inject up to 0.8 megawatts of power into the city electricity grid.

If fully funded, Geosolar will become the most expensive alternative energy project yet for Litomerice and one of the most ambitious undertaken by any Czech city. Unlike most geothermal energy projects, Litomerice’s proposed system will be independent of underground water sources and thus more replicable in other places.

Antonin Tym of Charles University’s Faculty of Natural Sciences works at the RINGEN (Research Infrastructure for Geothermal Energy) research center on the outskirts of Litomerice. The center is a collaboration among three Czech universities, the Academy of Science, and the Czech Geological Survey. 

“We believe geothermal resources will be a reality in Litomerice within five years,” Tym predicts.

Lucie Cejkova is a reporter and former climate editor for the Czech news site Denik Referendum. In addition to her journalistic work she is a doctoral student of media studies at Masaryk University in Brno.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.