Catalonia Independence

Som Energia (We are Energy) is Spain’s first renewable energy cooperative, founded in 2010 by one hundred and fifty Catalan citizens. Achieving European level recognition in the 2013 Sustainable Energy Europe Awards, Som Energia is now campaigning nationwide to promote and establish the business model for locally owned and produced renewable energy.

In just three years the cooperative has invested over EUR 3.5 million in sustainable energy schemes including eight photovoltaic schemes, a 500-kilowatt biogas plant and a 80-kilowatt biomass heater. The cooperative is now preparing for a substantial wind energy investment. Generation capacity currently stands at 4,200 megawatts of electricity, equating to an annual reduction of 2,640 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions or the electricity use of 1,400 people. The ultimate goal is for the cooperative to produce enough electricity to meet all of its members’ consumption.

According to Nuri Palmada of Som Energia, the success of the venture is evidence of a growing grassroots demand for sustainable forms of energy. “The project combines in an exemplary way the cooperative concept, the commitment of citizens, and local energy generation from renewable sources,” she said. Ms Palmada added that the cooperative had helped to change attitudes in Spain, transforming passive consumption into responsible, citizen-led investment. Significant bureaucratic and technical difficulties were encountered in the development process, in part due to the dominance of Spain’s energy market by a small number of powerful and established companies.

Described as a social enterprise, the business model of the cooperative is in many respects more efficient than commercial electricity generating companies since it has no publicity costs, does not pay large management salaries, operates modest offices and communicates with its members via the internet. The cooperative is campaigning to establish this business model in other parts of Spain, where forty local volunteer groups around the country are promoting the cause of clean, locally produced and owned sustainable energy generation.

Som Energia follows a similar model of collectively-owned green energy cooperatives that have been successful for several years in Northern European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK. Citizens join through a one-off refundable payment of EUR 100 and thereby become co-owners of the cooperative and can vote on decisions about future investments. Members can also invest directly in the development of renewable energy schemes connected to the network, and buy their green energy at the same price as conventionally-produced electricity.

Given the wider economic picture in Spain, the cooperative movement may be well timed to gain a stronger foothold in the energy sector. Spain's economy has shrunk by around 7.5 % since a property bubble burst in 2008, leaving millions of low-skilled laborers out of work while the government slashed spending on health, education and some social services and raised taxes to tame a soaring public deficit. According to official European Union statistics, in August 2013 Spain had the second highest unemployment rate in Europe at 26.7 %.  Youth unemployment is particularly acute at 57.4 %, and according to Catholic charity Caritas more than 6 % of Spain's population (around 3 million people) lived on EUR 307 ($410) a month or less last year.

Cooperatives however tend to thrive in such challenging contexts, and with growing European Union support for community financed local energy production, Som Energia may well be successful in their efforts to mainstream the renewable energy cooperative model.

It is hoped that more inspiring examples of local action for sustainable energy in Europe will be highlighted and supported in 2014.  

Photo Credit: Catalonia Energy Independence/shutterstock