Dirk Vansintjan is a softly spoken powerhouse of citizen energy in Europe. His story begins in Belgium in the mid-1980s. He studied Germanic philology, and then wanted to become an organic farmer; he didn’t find a farm, but did find an old watermill that had provided the local village with electricity between 1907-1947.
The watermill of Rotselaar was purchased in 1985 as part of a co-housing project, with the expectation that the building and the turbine both be restored. “It took us about 10 years before we got production started,” he says. “We were a not for profit organisation at that time – and to finance the part that was not subsidised, we set up a co-operative.”
That co-operative was EcoPower, formed in 1991 around his kitchen table. “We approached friends and family. We had 30 members and we raised about €50,000, which was enough to co-financed the turbine. Then a few years later, we successfully bid on an experimental wind farm. That was the game-changer.”
EcoPower continued to grow and today the co-operative has 60,000 members and supplies 1.6% of Flemish households. It operates 24 wind turbines, three hydropower plants and 300 photovoltaic plants with a total annual electricity yield of 90 gigawatt hours, making it one of the largest energy co-operatives in Europe. But his story doesn’t stop there.
“In 2008, I found out that a new co-operative, a green electricity supplier in France, had just been created, and on an impulse I phoned them. It turned out they had a problem.”
This problem (an inability to get a bank guarantee needed to enter the market) was solved by cross-border co-operation between EcoPower, Cooperatives Europe, a co-operative insurer and Triodos Bank.
More cross-border collaboration followed – and then they were approached by the European Commission who suggested they apply for funding to develop a Europe-wide support programme and gather best practices around the community energy sector.
“A side effect of this project was that in 2013 we created the European Federation of Citizen Energy Co-operatives (REScoop.eu),” says Mr Vansintjan. “The REScoop charter includes the co-operative values and principles – but we added a few things which address issues such as ecological and climate change issues, the depletion of natural resources, and concern for the future generations.”
This subject is close to his heart – he was involved in the emerging ecological movement in the 1970s, from setting up action groups in school to protesting against nuclear power plants. “I was also in the cradle of the Green Party in Flanders – you could say I was a green activist with some anarchistic tendencies.”
REScoop.eu is now run by a team of 13, with a network of 1,900 co-operatives operating across Europe, which together represent over 1.25 million citizens.
But the spread is not equal. Most renewable energy co-operatives in Europe are situated in the north and west, in areas that have seen favourable support mechanisms – such as Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands (where the number of energy co-ops has increased from 30 to more than 500 in 10 years).
“Our main concern is Eastern Europe, where for some citizens, setting up co-operatives feels like going back to communism. REScoop has no members in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland or the Baltic countries, and only one in Croatia, Slovenia and Romania. We are receiving support to try to spread the model in former communist countries, but this is why we asked the European Commission (EC) not to call it energy co-operatives, but energy communities.”
Elsewhere, development is steady, helped by the EC European Energy Package issued two years ago, comprising a number of legislative regulations and directives for EU countries to use in internal gas and electricity markets.
“These directives promise a lot, but all member states have to transpose it in their legislation and this is going quite slowly,” Mr Vansintjan says. “We try to follow up on everything that comes out of Europe, but there is a lot – we share out the lobbying among a loose coalition in favour of community energy.”
There are some good news stories in Europe, though. “Scotland in particular has a very good enabling framework called the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES), which is a sort of guarantee fund that takes away certain obstacles, when starting community efforts. Ireland is following this example too.”
He also highlights car sharing as an emerging practical, positive action. “It’s better to have cars that we share than for everyone to have a private car that stands in the street or in a garage for 90% of the time. We have actually set up a European co-operative for this.”
That co-op is Mobility Factory; REScoop realised there were a number of car-sharing co-ops looking to create their own apps. “So we brought them together and said ‘let’s develop the app together’. Each co-operative is still individual, but the members can use the app whether they are in Ghent or Barcelona.”
For him, these examples show how the current climate crisis is not one single issue, with one single solution.
“We are facing different crises coming together at the same time,” he says. “Climate change is caused by burning coal and fuel both now and in the industrialised past; this puts an enormous responsibility on us [Europeans] for what is inevitably going to happen.
“The future of humanity lies in the fact that we will need to switch to the co-operative identity to cope with what is coming. You have to get rid of an economy based on the pursuit of profit and richness for a few people. We shouldn’t be shy about saying ‘humanity will survive and progress through co-operation instead of competition’.” But there are big changes that need to happen.
“We need to go from centralised to decentralised, from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable and from ownership by big monopolists or states to people having solar panels on their roof and having an electric car that serves as a battery. There’s a central role for citizens here in what they do ethically, but also what they do collectively, and that’s where co-operatives are the ideal model for uniting neighbourhoods.”
This is a huge task. Is he hopeful? “I have to be,” he says, “partly because all of this is about more than just energy.”
“When we help start up new energy co-ops, we talk about how your membership and your board is not only about technique, but also about diversity and about community-building – meeting people and doing other things as well. This switch is about empowering local communities. It’s about showing how the money that is now flowing out of communities for oil, gas, coal and uranium, can, by turning to local renewables that are owned by local people, instead accumulate in the local economy. It’s about finding a new balance between global and local, and between urban and rural.”
It’s also about co-operation in the widest sense of the word. For co-ops to help drive the switches to low carbon energy, collabration with different actors is crucial – whether that is with cities and municipalities, federations and networks, or sectors such as housing and agriculture.
“If you put some interesting people together, and there are people who are engaged, you are able to build something beautiful,” he says.