Author: Nicholas Clark
“David and Goliath” a biblical phrase which now describes an underdog story; a contest where a smaller, opponent faces a much bigger adversary, usually perceived as stronger. Is bigger always better? Larger athletes can be less agile, less capable of changing direction quickly if circumstances change. Is the same true of large companies which provide centralised electricity vs. other economic/business models which can provide decentralised electricity? It is a question of production potential (excuse the electrical pun), adaptability and resilience.
When we switch on the light, does it matter to us where it comes from? From which energy source, possibly, but from which type of company? Unlikely. There is a battle occurring between the types of organisations which produce our renewable energy (primarily through wind and solar). This time, the fight is not between fossil fuel and renewable energy production; rather, it is about the way we as a society wish to organise our electricity production for the green transition.
Some background. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed the European Green Deal, with which the EU aims to be climate neutral in 2050. The commission proposed a European Climate Law to turn this political commitment into a legal obligation. In order for this to happen a vital factor is decarbonising the energy sector. Importantly, the Green Deal must improve jobs and in the words of Ursula von der Leyen:
“No one can be left behind…this transition will work for all and be just, or it will not work at all”
These important words will be important in our story. The Green Deal means using renewable energies, which do not produce carbon dioxide (an important greenhouse gas which warms the planet) and are not ‘used up’. The switch to make the EU more environmentally friendly is often referred to as the “Green Transition” and it is the spark which ignites our David and Goliath story.
 major renewable energy resources which do not produce CO2 are solar, wind, water (hydro), and geothermal.
A Cooperative Rebellion
Goliaths are huge industrial companies which are able to invest in large renewable infrastructures and provide energy to the grid. However, over the last 30 years or so, energy rebels, such as Dirk Vansintjan have been working to change the status quo. This alternative can be referred to as Cooperative Energy Communities – or REScoops how they work can be illustrated will by Mr Vansintjan’s own story.
It all started in 1991 around a kitchen table where Mr Vansintjan and colleagues restored an old water mill which was then used to provide energy to the local community to those who were involved in the cooperative. 30 years, 60,000 members, and a decision to move to wind turbines and solar panels, eventually to become suppliers of energy resulted in the cooperative named ‘Ecopower’ providing 1.7% of the electricity in Flanders! This is where the fight between Citizen Energy Cooperatives and the large Industry energy providers began. Cooperatives, like all social economy entities are democratically run and they reinvest profits. This means cheap energy can be produced and consequently most members need only a single share of 250 euros to get involved:
“It is not a story of rich Dentists, rather a story of people who often have a tight budget”
This was not easy. Many obstacles had to be overcome, including having to pay to put surplus energy produced onto the grid! But the lessons learned and the success of ‘Ecopower’ led to cooperation with a French energy cooperative (Enercoop), giving cross boarder exchange of good practices, eventually becoming REScoop.eu, The European federation of citizen energy cooperatives; a growing network of 1,500 European energy cooperatives and their 1.000.000 citizens who are active in the energy transition.
Mr Vansintjan envisions a cooperative future in which the social economy is not a niche, and explains that we should democratise the economy! His vision comes with a warning: In the wake of COVID, financial European measures should invest in new things and be focussed on the citizens, not invest in how things were before.
So, can David beat Goliath?
Well for one, an amazing map of energy coops across Europe demonstrates the power this movement has. So much so that the cooperative model has been copied by large energy companies e.g. co-investing in wind turbines! Don’t be fooled. You can only invest in the infrastructure of that same company, shackled to their rules and unable to change them. This is not a real cooperative and does not help change the game.
There is a long way to go with less than 5% of the current green energy supplied by real REScoops, but they are growing fast!
Importantly, community cooperatives keep investment, jobs and technology local. They allow for cheaper electricity, in a more socially responsible way, they are more resilient to troubles since they are made up of many smaller parts and are democratic.
EU Green Deal will work for all and be just, or it will not work at all
Remember these words above? Well in Belgium, Rescoops recently lost the battle to convince farmers to sign with them over big companies. This came at a cost where one farmer who signs to have a wind turbine can receive a sizeable sum of money (some 20,000 Euros annually). However, neighbouring farmers are sometimes unable or not allowed to do this causing major friction in farming communities. Farmers who don’t benefit are very much left behind! In protection of these farmers, REScoop.eu are pleading with Walloon and Flemish governments to consider wind a common good, where exploitation should have a fair and just authority. To reduce inequalities, participation of all local players should be guaranteed! The aim is for this to become an obligation for developers by law. David is fighting for fairness while Goliath is a direct cause of inequality.
So what can REScoop.eu do for you? Discover the tools and examples of amazing REScoops!
Tools for energy coop starter – Best practices, Business models, Finance, Stakeholder engagement, Mentors, Downloads
Energy Democracy Publication – With the right EU legal framework, prosumers could flourish and deliver a significant share of Europe’s renewable energy and provide important flexibility to the energy system through demand response. Already today, prosumers such as communities and cooperatives have transformed the energy market in many European countries while contributing significantly to revitalising the local economy and creating local jobs. Prosumers deliver a significant share of renewables investment and promote their local development and public support.
Advocacy – REScoop.eu supports the energy transition to a decentralized, renewable, efficient, clean and sustainable energy system with citizens at its core. We refer to the energy transition as “the energy transition to energy democracy.” We believe that REScoops are the most appropriate business model to keep this transition fair and affordable for citizens, and to make sure no one is left behind.
Working groups – REScoop.eu coordinates the collaboration between members in different thematic working groups. The aim of the working groups is to provide our members direct access to experts and to build a forum for exchange among participants.
Saerbeck – Germany – Saerbeck is a municipality in the district of Steinfurt, in North Rhine-Westphalia, north-west Germany. In 2008, its council decided to switch its entire energy supply to renewable energies in order to become climate-neutral by 2030
Citynvest – London – Brixton Energy is a not-for-profit cooperative initiative to produce renewable energy through solar PV panels in the South London area of Brixton. It is an example of a so-called REScoop (Renewable Energy Sources COOPerative).
Low Carbon Hub – Oxford – The Low Carbon Hub is a social enterprise that’s out to prove we can meet our energy needs in a way that’s good for people and the planet.
Keenly interested in human & social affairs and issues of sustainability. Having recently studied Human Ecology and worked in education for more than a decade, his writings revolve around how we can improve conditions and livelihoods for local communities through policy and action.