Co-op chief: People can produce most of their energy themselves

Dirk Vansintjan at the EU Sustainable Energy Week , 26 June 2014. [euenergyweek / Flickr]

Half of Europeans could have solar panels on their roofs by 2050 and be self-sufficient when it comes to their energy needs. And the trend won’t stop there as small-scale energy cooperatives bring in eight times more revenue to local authorities than big utilities, argues Dirk Vansintjan.

Dirk Vansintjan is President of the European Federation for Renewable Energy Cooperatives (REScoop.eu). He spoke to euractiv.com’s publisher and editor, Frédéric Simon.

What is the current situation now across Europe for energy cooperatives?

Several member states have introduced a favourable framework for citizens to take up an active role in the energy transition.  In Germany, 800 energy cooperatives have popped up in the last ten years, in the Netherlands it is going very fast too, there are now hundreds of them.

And this is due to favourable frameworks from governments. So now, if the directives are revised at European level, for example the Renewable Energy Directive, it is quite evident that the European Commission should make way for citizens and their initiatives.

From the experience of those countries, what were the main motives for encouraging energy cooperatives?

If you look at Germany, for instance, there was a favourable feed-in tariff which made it profitable to invest. And Germans trusted their governments not to impose retroactive measures to cut profits. So in countries where trust was combined with a favourable framework for citizens and their initiatives, the citizens really took action and invested in the energy transition.

But what are the benefits for society at large? Is small-scaled decentralised generation more efficient than the tradition energy generation system coming from big utilities?

What is at stake – and we team up with municipalities in this regard – is that sometimes local renewables are a bit more expensive than gas from Russia, when gas prices are low.

But even then it makes sense to turn to renewables because the money doesn’t flow out of our municipalities – out our economy, out of Europe – and it accumulates. So if we harvest the wind and make it into green electricity, and it is owned by citizens, then the profits stay local.

That is what is at stake, and now that the technology has evolved and solar panels are very cheap, it is feasible for all Europeans to put them on their roofs, and they should.

Have you evaluated how much this has already brought in?

My own cooperative started in 1991, making it one of the pioneers of this wave of energy cooperatives, after the Second World War. We now have about 50,000 members, about 45,000 households, and 41% of these households have solar panels on their roofs.

The study we carried out with Greenpeace Europe, EREF and Friends of the Earth Europe, shows that this is the potential: half of Europeans will have solar panels on their roofs by 2050.

Study maps potential of ‘energy citizens’ in push for renewable power

Half of EU citizens – including local communities, schools and hospitals – could be producing their own renewable electricity by 2050, meeting 45% of the EU’s energy demand, according to new research published on Monday (26 September).

You say this brings jobs and revenue for the local economy and for local people. Have you made an evaluation of that?

Not as part of this study. But there was a recent study carried out in Germany by the Stadtwerke – the municipal utility companies – that showed that if renewable energy installations are owned by the Stadtwerke or by the citizens in a cooperative, they bring in eight times more revenue to the region than when it is owned by a big utility. This really shows what is at stake here.

Does this mean that the big utility model is outdated? Or can they co-exist alongside energy cooperatives?

I think we will be able to co-exist. I think the utilities should focus more on industry, whereas citizens and local communities will be able to take care of themselves in the future.

What is the biggest resistance you see to this model being adopted more widely?

Well, of course, it is normal that the big utilities will not want to lose market share. But with the liberalisation that has been going on in Flanders for 13 years, for example, the market share of the former monopolist has shrunk to about 40% from 90%.

This will not stop, and when people start producing most of their energy themselves, they are engaging in demand response. In coming years we will buy electric cars, we will have home charging batteries. Citizens will be very proactive and it is up to energy cooperatives and other energy initiatives to help them do this.

So what are your expectations from the European level?

We want a European framework that gives citizens room to invest their own money in the energy transition, in a nutshell.

And specifically, that means things like priority access to the grid?

That is a first priority, of course. I still remember the time when we were renovating an old water mill in the early 90s, and we went to the DSO, which was owned half by the monopolist, Electrabel, and they said they did not need our electricity and that we would have to pay to put it on the grid. I don’t think we want to go back to that time.

This is often the criticism that we hear from the more conservative side of the energy debate. They say there is a lot of renewable energy coming onto the grid, which gets wasted because the grid is not always adapted to deal with it.

Of course, the grid has to be adapted to it. As energy cooperatives, we have quite a few members that are DSOs, some are more than a century old. They have a smart grid in the north of Italy, for example, and in Denmark, and of course we need smart grids, smart metres and smart people. If you do not want to be smart as a consumer, you can join an energy cooperative and we can help with this.

But you can’t have this without having the grid flexibility.

No, we need the framework. In countries like Germany that have had this kind of framework, we can see that it has worked.

In Belgium, we also have a four year old study, carried out by the National Planning Bureau and some renowned research institutions, which found that it would even be possible for Belgium to switch to 100% renewables. This would use a lot of PV, it would create jobs, it would cost €400 billion in investments in renewables and energy efficiency. Belgian citizens have €275 billion in savings, so we have to mobilise the people and their money to make this energy transition happen.

The reward will be that we will no longer need to spend €20bn per year imported gas, oil and uranium. There is a business case, so let’s start it.

In terms of timeframe, how long do you see this energy transition taking?

I am getting quite pessimistic these days, when I hear about what is going on in Greenland and the North Pole, but we need to go fast. We can build a wind turbine in half a year, but we can install solar panels tomorrow if we want to. So we can move fast, but we need all the citizens to be behind it.

It won’t work if the big utilities do it alone. We have to do it together and we have to be able to invest our money in it.

The grids need to be adapted as well, as you said, and that also takes time.

Yes, but we as energy cooperatives think the grids should be in the hands of the citizens as well. The distance between the DSOs and the citizens has become too big. This has been a negative consequence of the unbundling, the growth of this distance.

We believe that this contact should be very close, and what could be better than owning the DSO? This is another struggle we have in Flanders now, when they opened the capital on DSOs to a Chinese state grid company, when we have all this money in our savings accounts bringing nothing. And then we give the Chinese a 4% return on their investment every year. This is all part of the same struggle, in fact.

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