An interview by Gerry Niessen
The number of energy cooperatives in the Netherlands has increased significantly over the past years. In 2018, there were 20% more than in the year before and from 2007 to 2019 membership soared from a little over 0 to almost 70.000 people being members of a cooperative, investing in wind and solar energy together.
Some of them start with a subsidy, grow fast in the beginning and then get stuck. Others remain a volunteer organisation and can’t seem to make much progress in becoming self-sustainable and profitable. What is the difference? And what is a way to go about it that will lead to success?
Living in a city that was the ‘greenest region of the world 2014,’ I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find an initiative in the neighbourhood that could provide us with some answers. In 2013 a small group of citizens created an energy co-op in the city of Weert that is reaching a point of becoming self reliant. I decided to talk to the chairman Peter Gloudi to find out what we can learn from them.
How did the idea come about?
Various parties were already interested in the initial kernel of the idea years before anyone started discussing actually setting up a cooperative. “How can I be the one to determine where my energy comes from and how much it should cost?” That’s the core. A problem with the national companies is that you’re not given a real choice. For instance, some companies will give you the impression that they provide sustainable energy when they’re really just buying green certificates from Norway. “Greenwashing” it’s called. That one really bothers me.
So then in 2011 Bas Meijboom, who was then an employee of a housing association, placed an advertisement calling for support in starting an energy cooperative and that’s where it took off. A sustainability project of mine had just finished, so I called him immediately. Very soon we’d gathered a group of 15 to 20 like-minded people and gained support from the municipality. We had meeting locations and, more importantly, coffee! That’s always very important for a group of men getting together.
What was the vision and how did it develop into an actual cooperative?
The vision was very simple: locally generated sustainable energy for the residents of Weert, and helping people take energy-saving measures. After a year it was decided that I should be the chairman, but it wasn’t yet official. Some of the people were politically engaged and it was my stance that politics must go. I was also of the opinion that we should give this cooperative formal form so we could be a conversation partner and attract new members. It always had to be a citizens’ cooperative. From the very beginning, we maintained continuous discussion with the social field. We wanted to find out whether people were interested in our vision. A needs assessment, so to speak. From this we generated more members, between 40 and 50, and that was the foundation. It took quite a while to move forward, but eventually in 2013 we officially became a cooperative. It still took a long time, but we now have 260 members and expect to reach 300 by the end of the year.
How did you manage to get more members?
From the beginning we provided support for energy-saving measures but this service grew and became much more professional when we received subsidies from Dutch municipalities, as well as from various European sources. We prepared a whole system of advice distribution and energy coaches. In addition, we’ve managed to keep the energy supply in our own hands. That was made possible by joining other cooperatives in the Netherlands that did the same. We set up a solar park in Altweerterheide, not too big, just 1.2 MW, and in cooperation with other companies have added a battery to this.
A battery,this is still in an experimental phase, right?
Well, it’s not experimenting, it just works. It is “proven technology”. But you have to see what works with your business. A battery is terribly expensive at the moment and we were subsidised to a large extent by RVO (Netherlands Enterprise Agency). I’ll be honest with you, the battery itself is not produced in a sustainable manner yet, but it’s the most sustainable concept we have at the moment. But storage systems are changing more and more. There are always new storage systems. Some are very simple like water, but if you want to use hydrogen as storage then you still need to use sustainable energy production. Otherwise it makes no sense.
Could you say that, from the beginning till now, it was an easy road?
I think it went pretty easily. It took a long time, but that’s something you have to consider when starting a cooperative. In the beginning you’re mainly dealing with volunteers. You have to realize it’s necessary to have a core team of dedicated people that are willing to spend a lot of time on the project and will stay with it. I am voluntarily spending a workweek on this, which is something you have to be able to do if you want to start a cooperative. This is the main reason many cooperatives consist of retired people. Also, we’ve always said it should not be driven by subsidies, because at some point that subsidy will expire… and then what?
The idea that we can do this together as citizens would go out the window.
Indeed. So instead we have membership fees which are 20 euro per year. There has been some discussion about it, but we chose to keep it so low because we believe everyone should be able to join in. Only from the moment you’re looking for an investment for, let’s say, a solar park could you generate more money from and also for the members. All members receive a 5% reimbursement on their investment in the cooperative.
Did the expectations you had in 2011 came true?
I didn’t have many expectations. The goals we set; to generate our own energy, become a supplier and help people; are more than achieved. My personal goal was to help an organisation start up and become professional over time. We’re entering that phase now and I expect, with the current volume, that it should be possible to become self-sustaining after 2020. We had to invent several tricks to do that, but it depends on your circumstances and it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are cooperatives that remain volunteer organisations even after 15 years and don’t make any further progress.
So what makes the difference?
Very often, and it’s by no means my intention to offend anyone, cooperatives start with subsidies or out of wind or solar projects and grow very fast in the beginning, but then get stuck. First they want the money and then they try to deal with the rest later. We’ve done it the other way because we’re aware of the importance of a support network. The members we have should be the right members. If you’re dealing with members that just want to invest to make money and at a later point may have some funds available to invest in the energy transition, as an energy cooperative and a citizen initiative, you are, in my opinion, not doing it well. Another difference is that we have a supervisory board which consists not only of entrepreneurs but also people with specialised knowledge. I can recommend this to every cooperative.
What can the world learn from you?
That it’s possible to realise the energy transition from resident initiative. And it’s so much more fulfilling. Keep in mind that a cooperative grows slower than working with a project developer or company, which are really entirely profit-driven. It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to spend our profits on, and offer support to, a wide range of social and sustainable projects, even outside of the energy transition. Furthermore, sharing knowledge should not be a revenue model. We’ve signed a charter with Rescoop (European federation of renewable energy cooperatives) which means we agree to share our knowledge with other cooperatives. It’s about helping each other in every way we can. My last piece of advice is this: Don’t believe that you know it all and don’t drive the cooperative by ideology alone. It’s important to have goals and a clear ambition.
For more info, see the Weert Energie website.