Power to the people, says co-op lobby seeking solar revolut…


In Belgium, a federation of energy cooperatives has been granted a green light to access nothing short of 20% of the country’s prospective tender for offshore wind energy. 

A gargantuan €100 million has been shored up by some 34 local cooperatives across the regions of Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. 

These energy co-ops already generate hundreds of gigawatt-hours that power tens of thousands of households in Flanders alone. Now they are confident they can find additional finance to invest up to €445 million in the Belgian wind turbine concessions. It is a groundbreaking moment for citizen-led sustainable energy. 

But crucially, says Dirk Vansintjan – the president of the European energy co-op federation REScoop – it is the Belgian government that has hived off a portion of energy infrastructure for investment by co-ops. “We asked for it… and they gave it to us,” he says. 

And it is for that reason that Vansintjan is explaining to Energy Minister Miriam Dalli in Malta why EU directives on renewable energy say member state governments “must” – emphasis on the conditional clause – also provide budding co-ops in Malta an enabling framework that allows citizens to own and generate their own renewable energy projects. 

But for that to happen, prospective co-ops need the key to the attic and get access to as many rooftops as possible for PV panels to generate solar energy. 

It would be a game-changer, says John Mallia, the president of the Malta Cooperatives Federation, who invited Vansintjan to Malta. 

For Vansintjan, who at the start of the 1990s was looking for land for his organic farm in the village of Rotselaar, outside the university town of Leuven, it started with an old water mill he had restored with help from State subsidies. “It started around my kitchen table with just 10 people – we bought the water mill, powered by a flowing river, to generate energy. It powered a village of 120 families,” he says. 

But the energy companies would not allow them to consume the power they generated – and so started Vinsantjin’s lobbying efforts to get rid of these obstacles, together with experts from the nearby universities, that got the Green Party to table a law in the Senate. That pioneering spirit in 1991 has led to Vinsantjin’s co-op Ecopower claiming over 57,000 households today powered with around 100GWh: 70% hails from some 24 wind turbines, providing 1.7% of the regional energy mix alone. 

“We stopped the drain of energy money that left our local economy to go for imported gas in Russia. Since co-ops do not generate profits, the accumulated surplus is reinvested,” Vinsantjin, a founder of the local Green Party and an anti-nuclear campaigner since the 1970s, adds. 

REScoop today represents at least eight similar federations from across Europe, covering around 4,000 renewable energy projects, owned by co-ops or similar legal entities, and Vinsantjin says the idea is far from recent. 

“Some members hail from organisations who have been around since the early days of electrification, formed by villagers in rural areas who had been left behind and needed to solve their problem themselves. 

Denmark alone, Vinsantjin says, leads the pack with 70% of heating needs being supplied by 320 entities, of which 300 are cooperatives. 

And the economic value of cooperatives for renewable energy only keeps growing as the price of gas rises in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In 2022 alone, when energy prices rose so high, more than 100,000 citizens who were members of these renewable energy communities were able to save hundreds of euros on their annual electricity bill. 

But that is a reality that has hardly been felt in Malta, where energy remains heavily subsidised by the state in a bid to keep the war’s inflationary effects at bay. 

Friends of the Earth Malta’s director Martin Galea de Giovanni, and Mallia, hope REScoop’s efforts across Europe can be replicated in Malta. 

“We want decisions on energy generation and sustainability to come from people on the ground,” Galea de Giovanni says. To do this, residents and citizens must be allowed to buy into cooperative-owned PV panels that sell the energy to the national grid. 

It is not without precedent. Some Maltese schools have their own private investments from PV-panel suppliers who understand the value of investing in projects paid off by the feed-in tariff. Two projects that literally donated public land to two business organisations – the developers lobby MDA and small business chamber GRTU in a 50-50 deal with the Water Services Corporation, a State company – are the solar farms on reservoirs. They were financed by a leaseback investment from a PV-panel supplier. When the capital spend is fully paid back to the supplier from the feed-in tariff, the organisations will reap the benefits of the project. 

So crucially, it is the government that must pave the way for citizen cooperatives to invest in RE projects by providing valuable roof space to generate solar power for the national grid. Mallia says citizens could simply buy into a community-owned PV project with say, €500, earning their return from the solar energy fed to the national grid. 

“Co-op members get to earn a fair return on that energy that is sold, but they are also entitled to decide about how surpluses are invested, through a democratic vote,” Mallia says, who believes co-ops also lead consumers to make better choices. 

“Co-ops are principled businesses that are grounded in empowerment, ethics and democracy,” Mallia says, referring to Vansintjan’s own experience. “After the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Vansintjan continues, “members of my Ecopower co-op reduced their energy consumption by 45% because they had been learning more about the need to hunker down during the energy price crunch.” 

Mallia believes it is not simply awareness that drives co-op members like those of Ecopower. “It is the culture of empowerment – you are now an owner and generator of energy and no longer simply a consumer dependent on big business.” 

Vansintjan, who said he will share the REScoop experience with Energy Minister Miriam Dalli to show how an enabling framework can help energy co-ops, says this is how he convinces the mayors of the Belgian municipalities to choose co-op energy over other companies: 

“I tell him, ‘hey… each household in your town is paying €1,000 a year in cash that goes to some company in Russia or Saudi Arabia’… they start making the math. And they realise why it’s so important to keep that cash within their community. 

“Rural communities who had this idea decades ago, were the first to re-invest the cash from energy generation into say, bringing fibre cable to their remote areas as soon as possible. That kind of investment helped them retain skills from young people in their towns and region, who were digital natives and did not need to move to the bigger cities.” 

Martin Galea de Giovanni, who is part of environmental action in Malta and Europe to end gas dependence and for the island not to pursue its gas pipeline project, thinks this should also be the way forward for Maltese euros spent on hefty energy bills and flowing to the Electrogas shareholders of Siemens and SOCAR. “Imagine that money being invested in Maltese renewables, rather than flowing out of the country to faceless shareholders,” he says. 

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