Coop Break, 'Light my fire', The energy transition, an opportunity for cooperative energy-production

The energy transition, an opportunity for cooperative energy-production : citizens do it themselves! And better?

‘I believe in new technology, decentralisation, in consumer ownership, … REScoops is a fantastic movement. The Commission is on your side.’

Marie Donnelly, a director at the EU Commission’s DG Energy expressed a strong belief in the strength of citizens’ energy cooperatives. REScoops (Renewable Energy Sources Cooperatives) are open-access groups of citizens who work together on matters relating to renewable energy or energy efficiency (production, distribution, stocks and services).

The rise in raw material prices and the pollution caused by fossil fuels mean there is a real need to switch to more renewable energy. This energy transition can be led by big companies setting up large-scale projects, or by citizens getting together into groups.

The EU Commission has good cause for believing in these citizens’ groupings. Just take a look at the string of successful examples from across Europe, which were spoken of by Dirk Vansintjan, the guest speaker at this Coop Break.

A small sample of the citizens’ groupings that get their own funding together in order to invest in a local energy-generation project:

  • Need is the mother of cooperatives. In 1920, no Italian energy company wanted to invest in South Tyrol to bring energy to that separate region. Local authorities had no money and so local people in villages like Prato allo Stelvio (Prad am Stilfserjoch in German) decided to do it themselves. Recently, this cooperative set up a ‘smart grid’ aimed at finding a better balance between energy production and consumption. Because most of the consumers are also members of the cooperative, it’s all the easier to match supply and demand.
  • In Spain several years ago, a group of young people joined forces in Catalonia and set up the Somenergia cooperative along the model of Ecopower. Despite there being no support mechanism for renewable energy, they still won through: in 2016 the cooperative will become the owner of the only wind turbine that is to be built this year in Spain.

Dirk Vansintjan is a co-founder of Ecopower, an energy cooperative of 50 000 citizens – recently voted Radical Renewer 2015 – and chair of, the over-arching European organisation for REScoops. Ecopower’s story also started with a need: ‘We can demonstrate against nuclear power till the cows come home. We have take steps ourselves: set up our own company that’ll produce renewable energy for us.’

These couple of examples reveal a number of thoughts for which REScoops can offer an answer. Plus, there are a number of major advantages, too:

  • Yes, in my backyard

But do you really travel faster if you forge your own path? Vansintjan is certainly convinced that the first part of this aphorism doesn’t stand up in the energy sector. Getting the people to lead the energy transition is essential to also making it more acceptable', he says. ‘That way, a wind turbine becomes a source of pride instead of being seen as a nuisance.’ Ecopower proved this in Asse in 2014, when only one objection was made against a permit for four wind generators. Large project developers that do battle with protest groups may well be envious.

  • 2 000 euros a year per person flows out of Belgium to buy in fossil fuels from abroad.

An energy transition led by REScoops is also a means to embed resources locally. At present, 2 000 euros per man, woman and child leave Belgium to buy in raw materials from Saudi Arabia, Norway, Algeria and Russia. The investments needed to enable the energy transition are paid for by the people. As consumers, as taxpayers and with their savings deposits at the bank. By assuming an active role in a REScoop, people maintain a handle on the long-term cost of energy. Because, in a consumers’ cooperative, you’re both a consumer and an owner of the company, which is democratically managed by all the members together.

‘Energy supply is a service that has to be available whenever you need it and at a price that’s affordable',

says Donnelly. Given the energy transition, the EU believes that this implies a change in the landscape, with customers taking central position. This will allow a switch, from importing materials to self-production, for, as Donnelly says, If we don’t own our energy, what do we own?’ The EU is an advocate of the deployment of new technology, decentralisation and consumer ownership. At the same time, the EU believes that citizens still have to be given the possibility of delegating energy provision to bigger bodies, to which they remain just customers.

  • 'An energy producer that wants to sell less energy’. Only with a REScoop.

Self-production of energy means involvement that – based on Ecopower’s figures – seems to have a positive effect on energy consumption, with a greater reduction among users that install their own solar panels. Plus, various REScoops find that people have a greater tendency to take initiatives in other areas such as childcare or mobility.

Have you seen the light?

One of the people from DG Energy had a question for

‘How to we get this model better known?’

All information is available on the website, but Vansintjan admitted that they’re deliberately avoiding creating too much interest because Ecopower, for one, would not be able to meet demand if lots of people suddenly wanted to connect to them. More cooperatives are needed and supports such initiatives by means of a mentoring network.

Support from bodies like the European Commission is naturally important. And, recently, energy cooperatives received an honourable mention in Pope Francis’s encyclic, which was definitely a feather in the cap for the Italian REScoop members.

Get active and get organised

What role can you yourself play in all of this? You can join up to an existing REScoop or set up your own REScoop: that’ll increase capacity. To set up a REScoop, Vansintjan advises beginning by getting potential volunteers ‘round the kitchen table’.

Because everything starts small, surely?

The trick is to spot local opportunities for producing energy. For instance, there may be farmers interested in starting up a side-line activity (for which inspiration can be sought in Malempré). Another success factor is that REScoop works together with local authorities and that dialogue results in a municipal energy plan. With professional advice from the REScoop mentoring network and an adviser in doing business as a cooperative, the project can grow further.

Find out more and get the experience. Sign up for the Coop Tour to Germany, described by Vansintjan as being, alongside Denmark, ‘the Valhalla of local energy’ and talk to a number of energy cooperatives.

Coop Breaks are a lunchtime formula in which Coopburo focuses on the possibilities for cooperatives in a given area of interest, from an international perspective. Coopburo invited Dirk Vansintjan to this Coop Break following a recent survey concerning a project involving 12 partners from eight countries that is part of the ‘European Energy Efficiency Europe Programme’. It led to publication of the booklet ‘Power to the people. Will the energy transition lead to energy democracy?’

Praktische informatie

Dit event gaat door op donderdag, 22 oktober van 11.00u tot 14.00u.

Dit event zal plaatsvinden te Mundo-B, Rue d'Edimbourg 26, 1050, Brussels.


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