electrical co-opBy the end of 2012, the UN International Year of Cooperatives, significant gains were made by the citizen-led movement for local sustainable energy.  According to European Commission figures, 1 in 3 European citizens are members of cooperatives, a market sector which employs 5.4 million people. In fact, more Europeans are invested in cooperatives than in the stock market.

‘It is important in the coming decade that this cooperative movement embraces energy investment as it is increasingly such a crucial part of our economy,’ said Dirk Vansantjan, founding director of Belgian cooperative Ecopower and project coordinator of REScoop 20-20-20, an initiative supported by Intelligent-Energy Europe. ‘What we want is for citizens to get a hold of as much of the energy supply and production as possible.’

One of the most well-known examples is the Middelgrunden co-op, which began in the 1970s when three rural Danish families banded together and installed a wind turbine. Today, the Middelgrunden co-op owns and operates the world’s largest offshore wind farm outside Copenhagen harbor.

Ecopower too has undergone rapid growth – from 30 members in 1990, to 43 000 members. Today the cooperative supplies 1.2 percent of Flemish households.

A common question people ask is whether these types of cooperative arrangements could be suitable for larger scale projects. Vantsintjan’s response is to point out who is lending to some of the bigger offshore wind parks, for example, the only banks who still dare to do so are the cooperative banks — with money from their cooperative members. ‘If our banks are lending our money to private projects and private companies, then we shouldn’t be afraid to take on larger projects ourselves because it’s being done with our money anyway.’

‘We are now in an energy transition,’ Vansintjan continued, ‘from fossil to renewable sources, from spoiling energy to rational use, from centralized to decentralized production — and this transition will be paid by citizens anyway: either as a taxpayer, because those who invest will get subsidies to help them, or as a consumer, because this energy future will cost more to the consumer; or as a citizen as a money saver in the bank, because everyone who invests in this energy transition is essentially putting money in the bank.’

Today’s energy cooperatives 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.

However, the tradition of cooperative models differs greatly across Europe.

‘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,’ Vansintjan said.

In certain regions and newer Member States, historical legacies have resulted in negative associations with the cooperative structure.

Many other interesting regional peculiarities exist that still require examination. In Spain, for instance, the cooperative movement has been well-established and popular for many years. The country also has thousands of wind turbines. However, not a single installation is owned by a cooperative. ‘At the moment, the reasons for this are still a bit mysterious to us, says Vinsantjan, but we’re sure to discover why soon.’