European co-ops work for a gender-equitable energy transition

‘There are differences when it comes to gender not only in terms of participation, but also the financial contributions and leadership positions’

As the sector grows, renewable energy co-ops are exploring their role in ensuring the energy transition is gender-equitable.

In January, the European Citizen Energy Academy (EUCENA) launched a gender project to encourage more women to get involved in renewable energy co-ops. Coordinated by Europe’s federation of citizen energy co-operatives (REScoop), the project brings together four other organisations: Bündnis Bürgerenergie e.V. from Germany, Electra Energy Cooperative from Greece, Milieukontakt from Albania, and Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) in the Netherlands. As part of the project, EUCENA is running a series of webinars featuring women involved in renewables.

Women are underrepresented in the workforce in the energy sector in general. Within the renewable sector, they make up just 32% of the workforce, which is still more than the 22% in the oil and has sector. Some studies suggest this imbalance is also present in renewable energy co-ops at membership and governance level.

Renewable energy co-ops are made up of groups of citizens who jointly co-operate on energy transition projects. While they are not always registered as co-operatives due to verifying legislation across states, they abide by the co-operative principles, including voluntary and open membership, democratic governance and education, training and information, all of which foster inclusion.

However, a 2019 study by Zofia Łapniewska from the Institute of Economics, Finance and Management of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, found that most European electric co-ops responding did not include gender equality in their statutes, and took no action to promote it. 

The research, which looked at 45 electricity co-ops across the EU, showed that while larger co-ops tended to have more women members, women never made more than a quarter of the board, regardless of the size of co-op. 

The paper says the reasons for this include: traditional roles attributed to women within society, the low number of women graduates in science, technology, and mathematics, and the fact that energy co-ops are perceived as technologically complex. 

But the research also found that working for a renewable energy co-op did not require specialised technical skills – and most did not employ technical workers at all. So why aren’t more women involved? Shaping the Future, a 2015 study by Cornelia Fraune of the University of Siegen’s Research Centre, analysed how the larger social, cultural, and political context fostered and constrained citizens’ participation in renewable electricity production. It found a gender imbalance in the average ownership rate of citizen participation schemes, the average investment sum, and decision-making roles. It suggested that cultural, social and political factors influenced an individual’s participation in renewable energy schemes operated by citizens’ associations, in addition to individual preferences and investment attitudes.

The research revealed that the gender gap in citizen-led renewable energy projects reflected the gender wealth gap. According to 2012 data by the German Socio Economic Panel (SOEP), German women accumulate only 72% of the amount of wealth accumulated by men. It also found that women’s participation rates are higher in co-ops than in civil law associations. On average, only 31% of member owners per renewable energy co-op are women.

“In some cases it is not just an issue of participation but also how much women contribute to share capital – women tend to contribute less,” says Antonia Proka, project manager at REScoop. “There are differences when it comes to gender not only in terms of participation, but also the financial contributions and leadership positions. More vulnerable women are also less likely to participate. Co-ops struggle to attract women who are more affected by poverty as members.”

She added that while gender may not be part of the statutes of renewable energy co-ops, some REScoop members already have an equal number of men and women on their boards. The federation’s gender project aims to address these issues further. The first webinar was open to REScoop members only and brought together 40 participants.

During the first session, WECF’s Katharina Habersbrunner explored the benefits of a gender-just energy transition, emphasising that the participation of women offers more expertise and engagement, which will help to push the energy transition from the bottom up. 

“We have the possibility to reduce inequality with our energy communities,” she said, adding that renewable energy co-ops should set low financial thresholds to enable more women to become members and campaign to have more women on board.

“Bringing in more women could help to include more people in general and lead to more acceptance. We have the element of equality with the one member, one vote principle. Gender-just energy projects have higher impact and wider scope.”

Marika Kuschan from WECF added that the gender perspective must be included in all decision-making processes. The lack of representation and participation is reflected in the lack of female involvement in energy policies, she said. She pointed out that the unequal participation could be linked to other factors such as income levels, childcare responsibilities or care work.

Miriam Rodriguez-Ruiz, president of Electra Energy co-operative, shared her experience from Greece and Spain. Over the last three years she has been a member of Spanish association of women in energy, which has more than 200 members. They work to attract more women to the sector to ensure a just energy transition and provide mentoring to share know-how and support women reach their objectives. They also do presentations on energy and gender at all levels and encourage women to study science and be involved in the energy sector.

Groups of women are already campaigning for a gender-just energy transition in different European countries. In Spain, Xenergia (Mujeres con energia), a renewable energy co-op set up by women, installs solar panels. In Sweden, Qvinnovindar, a women-led renewable energy co-op, contributes 3 million KWh of clean energy to the grid every year.

REScoop will be showcasing some of these initiatives in its upcoming gender sessions. While the first session look at the challenges facing women, the second will explore the tools that co-ops can use to make the gender-just approach reality in their operations. The session will be open to everyone wishing to take part.