The Community Power Report kicks off the new year with a brand new series of articles: ‘Community Power in the Global Community’. As part of this project, we are going to interview key actors from various countries to provide insight into these countries’ community-owned renewables sectors.
First highlighted in our series is Belgium, for which we interviewed Dirk Vansintjan.
Mr. Vansintjan is a founding member of Ecopower cvba, a renewable energy co-operative based in Flanders, Belgium, and of REScoop.eu, a Europe-wide network for renewable energy co-operatives.
Mümtaz Derya Tarhan: Hello Mr. Vansintjan, thank you very much for talking to us.
Dirk Vansintjan: Of course, thank you.
MDT: Could you start by telling us about the latest situation of renewable energy in Belgium? On the policy side, are there any favourable or constraining elements?
DV: We are going through a period where nobody is so quite sure about what to do anymore.
We just went through a period that lasted for more than a year in which the regional governments said they would revise the support mechanism. We have a support mechanism that is based on a free market, using so called ‘Green Certificates’ and quota for the amount of renewable energy. Every supplier of electricity has to own a certain amount of Green Certificates; otherwise they have to pay a penalty.
Since too many of these Green Certificates were issued (burning of woodpellets in old coal fired electricity plants) and the quota have not been raised accordingly, the market is failing for the moment. This causes great uncertainty for investors. The revised system does not guarantee a lot of profit.
However, this could be a chance for co-operatives: The expected return-on-investment under the new regime is 8%, and that’s enough return for co-operatives. Meanwhile for private capital centered companies, that rate of return is not enough.
MDT: How about the situation of community-owned energy in Belgium? Are there any specifically geared policies in place to encourage community ownership?
DV: We do not have any specific policy measures to support renewable energy co-operatives. We of course have advantage rules for co-operatives in general, but none that favour renewable energy co-operatives over other renewable energy companies.
But in the Southern French-speaking part of the country, a decree is currently being made that requires each wind energy project to offer at least 25% equity to renewable energy co-operatives, and another 25% to the local municipality. It is not voted yet, but we are hoping that it will become a law.
Because our reasoning is that wind is a common good, and it is up to the government to decide which is the best developer to use this common good. Of course, according to us it is a renewable energy co-operative, which is open to all citizens. That is the best way to harness a common good like wind.
MDT: Let’s now talk about your organization. Could you introduce us to Ecopower and talk about the scope of its work?
DV: Ecopower was founded in 1991. We started with a handful of people willing to invest in renewable energy. We first looked into small historical watermills, but we immediately encountered a lot of obstacles and barriers as there did not exist any economic framework for renewable energy at that time. So we decided to form an NGO to lobby and alter this situation by assembling research institutes, organizations, and university professors dealing withhydro and solar energy. The organization was called Organisatie Duurzame Energie (ODE-Vlaanderen), and served as a federation for renewable energy in Flanders.
The first thing we did as ODE was to translate the German Feed-in Tariff (FIT) Law in Dutch and French. Our proposals were brought to the Senate by the Flemish and Walloon Green Party. Although we ultimately did not end up getting the law passed, we still started a chain reaction: We ended up getting 1 Belgian Franc extra paid to renewable energy projects, and a couple years later they added another Franc. As a result, by 1999, it became profitable to install wind turbines in the windy regions of Belgium.
By that time, we had a few hundred co-operative members. When you look at the size of renewable energy co-operatives in Europe, most of them do not exceed 2,500 members. As Ecopower, we now have 43,000 members. This was the result of our General Assembly’s decision in 2003 of becoming a supplier of our own electricity following the liberalization, or so called unbundling of the electricity market in Europe. Right now, Ecopower is growing at a pace of 400 new members each month. On average, they bring 1,000 Euros to the co-operative, which means that we have about 5 to 8 million Euros of new capital every year. As a result, Ecopower does not need to work with long-term bank loans; we get our money from our members. We now have around 50 million Euros invested in wind turbines, cogeneration, hydro power, solar panels.
MDT: You already answered a critical question I wanted to ask, but let me ask it again to see if there is anything you would want to stress again: What kept you going for the 10 years that passed from your incorporation to your first operational project?
DV: We had to create the economic framework. One thing I learned is that you can change laws, but that it takes some time.
MDT: Today, Ecopower has operational systems in numerous renewable energy technologies such as wind, hydro, solar, CHP and biomass. What was your rationale in diversifying your generation portfolio?
DV: Well, we analyzed the consumption of our members and our own production. We noticed that we could cover it quite well, even on a daily basis, if we used all renewable energy technologies that are available.
For instance, we work with farmers that install biogas systems on their farms as they have a constant supply of materials. This gives us our baseload. We also have wind and solar, which is quite unpredictable. And then we have cogeneration, with which we can fill the gaps. That’s why we decided to invest in all the different renewable energy sources.
For the moment, we are also building a factory to make local wood pellets. Our country is flooded by Canadian wood pellets, and they are burned here in old coal-run plants with an efficiency of 30%. We consider that to be a scandal.
MDT: Having developed numerous wind projects, could you talk about the community acceptance aspect of such projects? In your experience, did community and cooperative ownership play a role in the public perception of renewable energy projects?
DV: What we need is individuals in a community being aware of the problems we have. That it’s really necessary for them to have a sense of urgency about our need for renewable energy.
Nowadays, we talk less and less about climate change and pollution, and we talk more and more about how much money is leaving our economy to buy coal, gas and oil. Money is something everyone understands; it can convince liberals and conservatives alike. And the switch to renewables is good for our local economies; from fossil/nuclear fuels to renewables, from centralized to decentralized generation, from spoiling energy to rational energy use. That is the transition we are in, and it will make our local economies thrive through more jobs. That’s why we stopped talking about climate change nowadays; because on a cold and windy day people don’t believe that it exists.
MDT: You also launched a campaign called ‘Yes in My Backyard‘. Could you tell us about the campaign’s mission?
DV: Flanders is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, therefore it is very hard to find sites to install wind turbines on. This means that we really have to get the people on our side. First they have to be convinced that this is necessary, and also be allowed to participate in renewable energy generation.
Flanders experienced a ‘wind rush’ in recent years, because the support mechanisms were simply too good. We are competing with 40 renewable energy companies that are not co-operatives but rather capitalistic organizations. This ‘wind rush’ resulted in many farmers being approached for land lease, and their neighbours being in discontent.
During this ‘rush’, co-operatives were not the most aggressive organizations, because we want to work on social acceptance of projects. We have seen a lot of demonstrations against wind turbines, and our goal with the ‘Yes In My Backyard’ petition is to mobilize our members in every village in favour of co-operative wind farms.
We are also getting a lot of refusals as there lacks some sort of urgency on the side of some government administrations. They would follow people concerned about wildlife because they are not convinced that we have to install wind turbines as they may kill some birds. There may also be some monuments close to the site of the wind turbine. We have to cope with different administrations that defend their territory; they do not have a sense of urgency and are not sure if we should install them. That is our biggest challenge in meeting the European Union objectives for renewable energy.
MDT: Is this another reason why you diversified technologies and did not put all your eggs in the wind basket?
DV: Yes, of course.
And that is also why we are undertaking the wood pellet factory project. Heating is an important part of a household energy consumptions and we want to give people an alternative to natural gas and oil.
MDT: Looking forward, what do you consider as the main opportunities and threats for community power in Belgium to be?
DV: The main threat is that most wind turbines and other renewable energy projects will be built by companies where profit is the driving force, not our need for renewable energy.
We tell all citizens that the energy transition they want to see depends on them. As a citizen, you can either going to pay as a taxpayer because authorities are going to support renewable energy, or you are going to pay as a consumer because the price is going to go up due to this energy transition. Or you are going to pay as banks are going to loan the money invested in renewable energy; which is ultimately your savings money. This way, the banks and investors are going to make money with our money. So in fact we do have a choice: we are either going to sit back and watch what happens with our money, or we are going to do it ourselves, with renewable energy co-operatives.
MDT: What are the main lessons Ecopower has drawn from 21 years of experience in this sector?
DV: You have to be stubborn. Your goal has to be clear. Your actions must be transparent to your co-operative members. And never forget that what you are doing is very rewarding.
It also helps to be a producer and a supplier, which gives members a great feeling knowing that they produce and consume their own electricity. This is the attractive side of our business: Members don’t only get a financial return on their investment, but the electricity or wood pellets itself also.
MDT: Last year, you joined forces with other energy co-operatives from across Europe to establish REScoop.eu, a European federation for renewable energy co-operatives. Could you describe the initiative and talk about your objective in starting it?
DV: We want to bring to surface what renewable energy co-operatives do in Europe today. It seems that there are more than 1,000 renewable energy co-operatives across Europe as of now. There are none in Eastern Europe that we know of; most of them are situated in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain.
We want to bring to light not only best experiences and good examples, but also the people behind them. This can help other citizens who want to start such projects realize their objectives faster and better. They can learn from our mistakes. We want to describe different legal systems under which co-operatives operate, highlight different financial schemes, warn about obstacles, and advocate for support mechanisms that work. With all this knowledge, we promise to help 12 (later to become 14) pilot projects advance.
We also want to start lobbying different authorities of all scales; regional, federal, and European. We want to promote renewable energy and overcome obstacles in its way.
Note: All images are from Ecopower’s Facebook page
The Community Power Report
The Community Power Report is a website covering project and policy updates regarding community-based power generation and conservation from across the world. It has the mission of providing a global platform for experience and knowledge sharing regarding community-based energy solutions, and showcasing that another way of generating, consuming, and living is possible for all of us.