Better support for energy cooperatives with a view to transition

19 September 2017

Energy cooperatives – groups of local people generating renewable energy for their own use – could play an important role in the energy transition. But Dutch authorities, banks and other institutions will need to provide better support for this trend – following the model in Germany. These are among the findings of a study by Gabriella Dóci, who defended her PhD at VU Amsterdam on 12 September.

Roof with solar panelsPhoto: stockvideoshooter (Shutterstock)

Gabriella Dóci studied the backgrounds of local energy cooperatives in various ways. For her research, she compared different types of large and small cooperatives in both Germany and the Netherlands, distinguishing between groups which succeeded in fulfilling their ambitions and groups which did not. She drew a further distinction regarding the extent to which people were involved in their cooperative, and she also explored the policy context around the cooperatives. Her aim was to discover how to promote the further spread and upscaling of energy cooperatives.

Profit a key motive for participation

On an individual level, she looked at the motives that prompt people to join a cooperative and invest time and money in it. Two types of motive are always present: the prospect of making a profit (energy saving, cheaper energy) and more normative considerations. The cooperatives’ organisational framework is driven mainly by hedonistic motives (pursuing personal happiness) and normative considerations.

The more complex, the more formal

Dóci also looked at the cooperatives as a whole and studied their strategies for investing in new energy sources and overcoming the obstacles they encounter. Cooperatives appear to be able to carry out reasonably complex projects with relatively few volunteers and without receiving additional funds. The larger and more complex the project and the cooperative, the more the latter adopts a formal structure and engages external professional assistance.

Germany a better promoter

On an institutional level, Dóci looked at the supporting and obstructing policies. The German system offers optimum investment conditions for groups that are not willing to run too high a risk. In the Dutch system, this support is either missing or provided only for the very smallest projects. As a result, cooperatives are not motivated to scale up and there are fewer of them; those that do exist are smaller than in Germany. Dóci: ‘Increasing numbers of people in the Netherlands and Germany are keen to invest in local renewable energy. German cooperatives are achieving goals at a higher level of ambition. The good German feed-in tariff means that the risks for cooperatives are already largely covered. People who participate do so with their own money, so they don’t want to run a high risk. It is crucial that there is a long-term, consistent policy which keeps risks low and safeguards the returns for cooperatives.’

Part of the energy transition

Finally, Dóci studied the role that cooperatives of this type can play as a social “niche” in transitions. Cooperatives organise themselves, gaining strength and receiving support from large established players such as energy companies, banks and municipalities, and developing contacts with other parties in the “undercurrent”. Because cooperatives are heterogeneous in composition, contacts, technologies and the context in which they operate, this improves the likelihood of their becoming an influential part of the energy supply. Dóci: ‘Support for energy cooperatives means supporting the energy transition – partly because a network of other parties is indirectly involved. Many different investments in sustainable energy sources are needed, and a cooperative-friendly policy is certainly helpful.’

Background information

Gabriella Dóci carried out her PhD research “Renewable energy communities – a comprehensive study of local energy initiatives in the Netherlands and Germany” at VU Amsterdam, supported by funding under the NWO Energy Transitions programme. The supervisor is professor Arthur Petersen.

For further information, contact Gabriella Dóci,

Source: NWO