Power to the people

REScoop 20-20-20 and the emergence of the renewable energy cooperative in Europe

Best estimates put the number of renewable energy cooperatives in Europe somewhere around 1,200. In most countries no national federation of cooperatives exists. This makes producing an inventory of cooperatives that deal specifically with renewable energy a challenge. 

This is the goal of REScoop 20-20-20, a new IEE-supported initiative launched this past April. According to Dirk Vansintjan, the project’s coordinator, ‘our main aim is to bring to the surface all the renewable energy cooperatives around Europe; all the pioneers responsible for these initiatives, all their expertise, and all their experiences—both good and bad.’ 

Apart from the coordinator of the REScoop 20-20-20 project, Vansintjan is a cofounder of Ecopower, a cooperative that finances renewable energy projects in Belgium. Since its founding in 1991, Ecopower has grown from 30 members to 43,000 members. For an energy cooperative, Ecopower is quite unusual: it both produces and supplies electricity to its members. 

This was made possible in 2003, following the liberalisation of the energy market in Belgium, after which Ecopower became Belgium’s sole cooperatively owned supplier of cooperatively produced green electricity. Today the cooperative supplies 1.2 percent of Flemish households. 

The idea for REScoop 20-20-20 began to take shape a few years ago when Vansintjan and his colleagues at Ecopower began encountering other renewable energy cooperatives around Europe. ‘Before we thought we were all alone on the planet,’ Vansintjan half-jokingly admitted.  

For example, a French renewable energy cooperative, Enercoop, was looking for support in acquiring a bank guarantee in order to buy a package of green electricity from EDF, the largest electric utility in France. With the support of Cooperatives Europe and some ethical banks, Ecopower was able to help the French cooperative secure a bank guarantee. ‘This was the start of collaboration across borders,’ said Vansintjan. 

Now four renewable cooperatives and three national federations of renewable cooperatives are working together in the REScoop 20-20-20 project aiming at:

(1) inventorying existing renewable energy cooperatives and their RES projects in order to identify their added value in fostering RES in Europe and increasing its social acceptance;

(2)  developing and testing of business structures and financing models for new renewable energy cooperatives; and

(3) disseminating RES cooperative approaches, empowering citizens and consumers so those citizens all over Europe, following the examples of Belgium, German and Danish renewable cooperative's.

Why developing a knowledge sharing network is so important 

The main goal of REScoop 20-20-20 is to collect and share the experiences of existing renewable energy cooperatives around Europe in order to help others start or improve their own projects. According to Vinsantjan, ‘this will give the more and less experienced partners new ideas by bringing to the surface, and addressing, the various obstacles facing our businesses.’  

Ecopower’s own experience, for instance, has been instructive for other partners in the network. In Flanders the cooperative operates by producing and supplying electricity at the same time. But in Denmark, according to Vansintjan, it is not possible for a single company to do both. ‘Armed with the knowledge of what is possible,’ said Vansintjan, ‘our Danish partner was able to promote this approach in Denmark. As a result, legislation is now expected to change there.’

This is just one example of the many benefits international knowledge exchange can bring. This exchange of experiences is helping to deliver recommendations to EU and national governments on fiscal, legal and authorisation policies to increase the success rate of RES cooperative projects. ‘Our hope is that by gathering all these obstacles and solutions, it will allow us to better inform all levels—local, regional and European,’ said Vansintjan. 

From woodchips to offshore windfarms

Currently, REScoop 20-20-20 consists of a consortium of twelve partners; some are renewable energy cooperatives like Ecopower, or federations of (RES)coops, others are local energy agencies, but all share work experience related to renewable energy sources or cooperatives. 

‘We really wanted the consortium to reflect the diversity of the coops that can be found all over Europe,’ said Vansintjan. Indeed, the energy cooperatives that exist today do tend to cover a wide range of activities at many levels of development from, say, a few farmers collecting and drying wood to supply their local municipality, to large-scale projects such as Middelgrunden, the well-known off-shore wind farm cooperative from Copenhagen. 

REScoop 20-20-20 encourages groups of citizens of any legal form concerned with RES to participate in their knowledge sharing network—not only cooperatives limited to the legal definition of the term. On their website visitors can create a profile and register their cooperative. The REScoop consortium also includes EMES, an academic network, to help describe the diverse financial and legal schemes involved. 

The cooperative movement in Europe

2012 is the International Year of Cooperatives, and according to European Commission figures, 123 million Europeans are members of one of the 160,000 cooperative enterprises, employing 5.4 million people. More Europeans are investing in cooperatives than in the stock market. 

‘It is important in the coming decade that this cooperative movement embraces renewable energy investment as it increasingly is a crucial part of our economy,’ said Vansintjan. ‘What we want is for citizens to get a hold of as much of the energy production, transport, distribution and supply as possible.’

A common question people ask is whether these types of cooperative arrangements could be suitable for larger scale projects. Vansintjan’s reponse is that ‘it clearly works at smaller scale, the financial model is proven and we shouldn’t be afraid to take on larger projects’. 

Supporting pilot projects

Besides learning from existing initiatives, REScoop 20-20-20 is also helping to create twelve new RES cooperatives by leveraging the network’s growing collection of best practices and other resources. During a recent meeting in Manchester, England, members of the project settled on fourteen projects that would receive their support. The projects are located in ten different member states. 

Vansintjan pointed out that certain regions in Europe will require more attention than others. ‘For Danes, it is the natural way of organizing themselves. Since the Middle Ages they’ve been doing it, and today most renewable projects in the country are organized this way,’ he said. 

In Eastern Europe, however, the cooperative name itself can carry a lot of ideological baggage. In these countries, explained Vansintjan, extra effort may be needed to overcome some of the negative feelings that come with the cooperative structure. 

Many other interesting regional peculiarities exist. In Spain, despite the fact that the country has thousands of wind turbines and the cooperative movement is well-established in other sectors, at the moment not a single wind turbine is owned by a cooperative. 

‘In the REScoop 20-20-20 project we will analyse which barriers are hindering a wider spread of RES cooperatives in Spain and we will provide solutions and assist in setting up new RES cooperatives in the country,’ explained Vansintjan.

Visit the REScoop website