Energy Cooperatives – Local Ownership of Clean Technology


Whether it is solar panels, wind turbines or biomass stoves, every household can generate their own power. If citizens cooperate in producing renewable energy they can lower electricity costs while developing the local economy and selling excess power back to the grid. Such power generation has brought modern society to a crossroads: do we go for an inclusive world that respects equality and our environment, based on the sharing of clean energy, or do we remain in a world dominated by financial and political short-term interests, based on control and competition over finite resources?

Hundreds of people cooperated to carry out the wing. The entire windmill was built by teachers at the schools in Tvind, with different people from all over the country and from abroad. Source: REScoop

Hundreds of people cooperated to carry out the wing. The entire windmill was built by teachers at the schools in Tvind, with different people from all over the country and from abroad. Source: REScoop

In 2014, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 19, marking the date when humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the year and started to accumulate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This means there was no space for growth without harming the planet in the future, unless it was based on clean energy.

Renewables are now cost competitive with fossil fuels which has allowed for an increased development and cost reduction of clean energy technologies. Last summer, with crude oil at $100 or €75 per barrel, solar PV was cheaper than crude. In markets with high penetrations of intermittent renewable power supply, like Germany and Scandinavia, wholesale market prices have dropped to €30 MWh or below, making solar power competitive with crude oil at €48 a barrel (1,600 kWh/barrel). As a result, Norway, with stationary energy demand covered by hydropower, promotes electric vehicles to the extent that they have become the best selling vehicles in the market.

As it stands, 20% of new registrations and 2% of all cars in the country are electric. Apart from a major energy efficiency boost in the transport sector, the switch to electricity leads to a reduction of heat, noise and exhaust emissions. In the metropolitan areas in the south of Europe, this would reduce the cooling load and would improve health and quality of life. This is picked up elsewhere in the world. To alleviate local pollution, Tehran introduced 400,000 electric scooters, Indonesia and the Filippines convert tuk-tuks and jeepneys to electric; Jordan installed 3,000 solar PV charging stations while Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Graz announced a switch to electric buses.

These are clear examples of how cheaper clean energy can transform society for the better. However, renewables still come up against old energy infrastructure. In recent years, Australia invested hugely in transmission line extensions. Consumers pay for them through their energy bills, but with more off-grid solutions and cheap solar PV, this leads to a spiral of consumers leaving the market to evade grid costs. In a panic reaction to a similar trend, Spain introduced multi-million fines for consumers going offgrid. This is not solving the problem and only adds to frustration, even despair, of prosumers over retro-active cuts in support for renewables.

Group picture of REScoop partners on their visit to the solar panel test plant in loos en Gohelle in October 2014. Source: REScoop

Group picture of REScoop partners on their visit to the solar panel test plant in loos en Gohelle in
October 2014. Source: REScoop

The Case For Cooperation

As always in times of collective crisis, individual people find and help each other. With governments not able or willing to come to their rescue, people cooperate. Social media helps people connect and organize in ways never known before. Arab spring, Indignados, the Occupy movement; are all expressions of frustration and resentment of citizens about their respective situations.

After initial frustration, people take matters into their own hands. Eco-villages, co-housing, community gardens, car and bike-sharing, open-source developments, local currencies, time banks m– these are all examples of people working together voluntarily for the long-term benefit of their communities.

As Elinor Ostrom stated in Beyond Markets and States, when she received the Nobel Price for Economy in 2009: “the governance of common goods by communities is often more primitive but also more effective than when they are managed by market actors or public authorities.”

In the seventies, to express their protest against the nuclear plans of the Danish government, the community of the people’s university of Tvind, built a 2 MW wind turbine – by hand. They used recycled materials for the drive train and taught themselves how to make the blades. They dug the hole for the foundation, wove the reinforcements and carefully poured the concrete tower, with the help of hundreds of supporters. Forty years after the start of the construction, their turbine is still up and running. The nuclear power plants of Barsebäck in Sweden, across the Sund from Copenhagen that were set up in the same period have been shut down.

After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, some parents in the village of Schönau, in the Black Forest, concluded that the only way for consumers to renounce nuclear was to take over the local grid. They launched a crowd-funding campaign “Ich bin ein Störfall”. With a double meaning in German of “I am a technical incident”, referring to the disaster in Chernobyl, and “I am an annoyance”.

After years of struggling, in and out of court, the ElektrizitätsWerke Schönau (EWS) now supplies clean power to over 100,000 consumers in Germany. They source the power directly from renewables and cogeneration producers, on a real-time basis, to be sure that absolutely no nuclear power is involved. A subsidiary of the group owns and manages seven local electricity and two gas grids. EWS supports energy efficiency measures and the development of new, usually small-scale, green energy generation. The cooperative also supports the citizen groups in Berlin and Hamburg aiming to take over the grids in their cities.

ElektrizitätsWerke Schönau (EWS) campaign: “Ich bin ein Störfall” which means in German “I am a technical incident”, referring to the disaster in Chernobyl. Thanks to the Störfall campaign, two million Deutschmarks were donated in six weeks. Eventually, EWS was able to buy the local grid. Source: EWS

ElektrizitätsWerke Schönau (EWS) campaign: “Ich bin ein Störfall” which means in German “I am a technical incident”, referring to the disaster in Chernobyl. Thanks to the Störfall campaign, two million Deutschmarks were donated in six weeks. Eventually, EWS was able to buy the local grid. Source: EWS

Authorities Supporting Citizens

The Tvindmøllen is part of a Danish bottom-up movement that works with local citizens to help develop their society through wind turbines. In 1985, when the first wind parks were being built, the government decided only to allow wind projects near where people lived or worked. This assured that wind projects were developed taking the considerations of the local community into account. The government also introduced an exemption on paying taxes on revenues up to a relatively small participation in projects.

The result was that by the end of the 1990s, 150,000 Danes, representing about 10% of the households, held shares in wind projects.

After reintroducing an obligation for wind energy developers to have a local connection with the community they develop projects in, resistance still persists in many places. A trend has emerged whereby communities only end their resistance when a local actor initiates a project and promises to reinvest the revenues in the local community. An example of this occured in Hvide Sande, a small fishing and surfing community on the west coast of Jutland. There, the local community refused the installation of wind turbines on the beach, until the local tourist board picked up the project. Then people were queueing in front of the local bank to buy shares. Wind energy became a lever for local development.

Similar considerations are seen in many communities that go for a 100% local sustainable energy. The municipality of Güssing in Austria is a typical example. Rural communities see their population decreasing rapidly as young people leave to work or study abroad and the population continues to age. With less children, schools have to be closed, then the municipality has to lay off employees and with less active citizens, municipal income goes down.

In Güssing, its 4,000 inhabitants used to spend €6 million per year on the purchase of fossil fuels. In little over a decade, the community turned its energy supply around and now harvests €13 million worth of energy from local renewable energy sources. In the process, the community also created 1,000 jobs and attracted 50 businesses.

The City of Eeklo in Flanders, Belgium, developed a local wind energy plan at the end of the 1990s. The city turned to wind energy after having looked into solar PV and biogas. While developing the plan, inhabitants were taken for visits to existing wind turbines proejcts. Finally the city launched a tender for wind turbines on two sites it owned. The tender was won by Ecopower, a then still very small cooperative with around 50 members. It opened the project to 100% local participation and offered an extensive communication scheme on sustainable energy and a charging station for electric vehicles. Over time, wind projects have become the basis of a strong long-term partnership between the city and the cooperative.

This boosted the activities of Ecopower. Within three years the number of cooperative members grew to 5,000. When the electricity market in Flanders was liberalized in 2003, Ecopower became the only citizen cooperative green energy supplier. Meanwhile, it is the biggest REScoop (Renewable Energy Sources Cooperative) in Europe with 50,000 members and €50 million of equity. From this position, Ecopower started to help young cooperatives. It supplies energy produced by other cooperatives to their members and supports other community green energy suppliers. For example, Ecopower provided the necessary bank warranty to get Enercoop in France up and running. This way it has become the driving force behind the Belgian and European REScoop federations.

Westmill Co-op built the first onshore wind farm in the south-east of England and it is 100% community owned. Source: Gale Photography.

Westmill Co-op built the first onshore wind farm in the south-east of England and it is 100% community owned. Source: Gale Photography.

REScoop to the Rescue

REScoop is a group or cooperative of citizens for renewable energy. As part of the Intelligent Energy Europe REScoop 202020 project, 2,500 REScoops were traced in Europe. The project analyzed their business models and financing schemes with the results being applied to 15 pilot projects. Having found each other, a number of REScoops and national federations created the European federation with the aim to valorize the findings. The citizens united in are able and willing to support the development of sustainable energy across Europe.

The Cyclades Island of Sifnos in Greece was one of these pilots. Like many islands, the memory of being self-sufficient remains strong and, in view of the ongoing economic crisis, the islanders are keen to return to a state of greater autonomy. Sifnos is 74km², has 2,500 inhabitants and one single 9.6 MW power plant with eight engines running on oil. In 2013, the plant produced 16 million kWh at a cost of 38€ ct/kWh. Because of the equalization of the electricity price in the whole of Greece the share in the energy bill of consumers on the island is only 9.5€ ct/kWh. Consumers on the mainland subsidize the difference.

Wind and solar can be produced at less than 7€ ct/kWh without financial support. Because of their abundant availability they could easily cover the bulk of the energy needs on the islands. Even renouncing the mainland subsidy, this allows citizens all over Europe to invest, through their local REScoops, in turning the energy supply 100% local and sustainable. They can share the margin with the islanders and use the part to reward their members while generating some operating budget for themselves.

In subsequent years, cooperatives can then collect money locally to take as much of their energy supply back into their own hands.

The share not used to cover capital costs can be used for the improvement of the quality of life on the island. To set up a well-equiped medical post, organize the recycling of waste or improve connections with neighbours.

Inspired by the examples of Samsø and El Hierro, other islands in southern Europe could also add desalination, the purification of waste water or the treatment of waste to the technology mix. On Sifnos, biogas produced from the waste of the local slaughter house, hotels, restaurants and households, cheese and olive oil prodcuers, as well as manure and water purification sludge, all of which could be used in a cogeneration plant supplementing the intermittent production of solar and wind. Replacing combustion engine vehicles on the islands with electric vehicles would also offer storage capacity for excess power and could increase the attractiveness of the islands in the absence of vehicle noise and exhaust emissions while improving their economy’s income.

Sifnos is not just an example of how a REScoop helps citizens come together; it mis also one which shows how cooperation can open new avenues to generate growth mfor the local economy; and it shows how the potential for other communities to follow suit is there. Energy consumption in the European community is about 20,000 TWh per year while energy supply from the sun is 4.4 million TWh. As more technologies become available for individuals to generate their electricity, the ability to supply our own clean energy only increases and creates a more secure future for ourselves and our planet.

Writer: Dirk Knapen, has worked in the environment movement on energy and climate issues for twelve years. He combines sustainable energy and citizen cooperatives in his work at REScoop.

This article featured in Issue #16 (Summer 2015) of Revolve Magazine on pages 20-25.


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