Although in the last decades a transition toward a sustainable energy system with renewables has been advocated by many, it is still uncertain where the support and required investments for renewables can come from. In this article we introduce and analyze a special type of investor group: renewable energy communities, which are grassroots initiatives that invest in 'clean energy' in order to meet consumption needs and environmental goals and thereby – even unwittingly – conduce to the spread of renewables. The aim of the present study is to explore the potential of renewable energy communities, as social niches, to contribute to transitions in the energy system. To do so, we propose three indicators for measuring the transition potential of social niches, based on proxies for technological innovations derived from the literature. In addition, we reinterpret the notion of niches and the way transition occurs by arguing that niches are complex systems in which both technological and social innovations develop simultaneously and that during transition entire niches link up with the regime. Furthermore, we make a distinction between internally and externally oriented niches based on their orientation and application focus. Our results show that renewable energy communities in the Netherlands are internally oriented social niches that have the potential for upscaling and contribute to sustainability transitions. We use a comparative case study analysis complemented by a systematic literature and documentary review to show that these communities are already changing the Dutch energy system, by connecting to regime actors. Their further advancement depends on strengthening their links to established actors, but also on providing a favorable regulatory framework.
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