The Energy Revolution Starts at Home
In 1991 Dirk Vansintjan co-founded Ecopower, a Belgian renewable energy cooperative that now has more than 60,000 members. He has advice on how communities can achieve energy democracy.
Dirk Vansintjan prefers not to bring up climate change when he’s talking with local leaders about why they should invest in renewable energy communities, also called energy cooperatives. He doesn’t want to get into debates about how severe the crisis is and prefers to focus on issues politicians across different parties all agree on: local economies and jobs.
Yet the work Dirk does as president of REScoop.eu, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives, plays an important role in making sure Europe has a chance of reducing the risk of calamity due to climate change and reach its goal to become carbon neutral by 2050. REScoop.eu, and many other renewable energy cooperatives across Europe and the world, are striving for energy democracy, to support citizens in making their own choices, stimulate local employment and boost the economy with money that would otherwise flow to external investors and big fossil fuel corporations.
At Patagonia, we believe the current model of big energy companies and the reliance on fossil fuel production must be changed if we’re to have a chance at staying within 1.5°C of global warming. We talked with Dirk about the history of energy cooperatives and how they can help local economies. Having founded an energy cooperative himself, Dirk’s story offers tips on how individuals can work for energy democracy in their own communities.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mădălina Preda: Dirk, when did you become an activist?
Dirk Vansintjan: In 1973, when I was 14, the Belgian government decided that all 18-year-old boys should go to the army before they could go to university. The students in secondary schools went on strike to protest this, but my school didn’t allow me to join because I was too young. But my mother allowed it and I stayed home in protest. When the school tried to punish me, she told them, “You can’t punish my son. What he did was for a good cause.“ That was the first time I took a stand.
Later, I became more interested in the green movement, which was emerging in Europe. My friends and I started a group called De Groene Fietsers (Green Cyclists) and we did all kinds of actions: demanded more bike lanes, protested against turning rural tracks into concrete roads and more. Eventually, our group joined with other green groups and served as the nucleus of the Green Party in Flanders/Belgium. Today, the green parties of Belgium are also part of the majority in the federal government.
When did your interest in green energy begin?
I was involved in the movement against nuclear energy and went to protests in Bretagne, France, where they were planning to build a nuclear power plant. The people of Bretagne didn’t want it and there were manifestations in the fields—it was just us, the protesters, the cows and the sheep. I realised we were talking to ourselves and to win we had to have good alternatives to nuclear power that could resonate with more people.
And then, in 1985, I found a derelict ruin with lots of land that was also a national monument: the Rotselaar water mill in Flanders, Belgium. We bought the mill and then registered it as a not-for-profit organization. People signed up as members and then paid a membership fee. There was an old turbine on site, which could provide energy, but we needed funds to restore it. We had to install a gearbox, a generator, hire steering operators. We needed more money than we could raise as a not-for-profit. So, we set up a cooperative which we called Ecopower and our plan was to provide electricity for the whole village like it did in the past.
What is a cooperative and how does it work?
A cooperative is a company which is democratically organised and controlled by its members. Typically, every member has one vote, regardless of the number of shares. A cooperative always responds to a need—it can be an economical need, a social need or a cultural need. And so, there is a problem and people get together and set up a tool to do something about the problem.
Cooperatives exist in every sector, and energy cooperatives have been around for more than a century, since the very beginning of electrification. In the 19th century, for example, in England, there were coal mines where local stores sold only very expensive food. So, people set up cooperatives to sell cheaper food of better quality. That’s how the cooperative movement started all over the world. In the United States, rural electric cooperatives were created after the Great Depression, to bring electricity to remote areas and to farms, as part of the New Deal. Nowadays one out of seven people on Earth is a member of a cooperative.
Why should people own their energy?
In many European states some people say the energy sector must be nationalised or must be taken into the hands of municipalities; they call it remunicipalisation. But in the Netherlands, for example, the energy sector was in the hands of the municipalities and then they sold it. Take Eneco, for example: the company was 100% owned by municipalities and then it was sold to a foreign company, Mitsubishi Corporation.
We have a unique chance to find a new balance between cities and rural areas, between globalisation, global economy and local economy. The energy transition from fossil and nuclear to renewable is also a transition from centralised production to decentralised production. We can give rural areas a new impulse, but only if the production facilities, such as wind turbines, are owned by local people. The large energy companies will try to own all renewable energy production. This is the challenge we have now: to convince citizens they don’t have to sit back. Instead, they have to act and convince municipalities and mayors.
How do we convince leaders, then, to prioritise an energy transformation with people at the center?
I don’t often talk about climate change anymore because there are people who don’t believe in it or who think it’s not a priority. But I talk about the money that is now leaving our local economy to buy coal, oil, gas or uranium. In Belgium, that’s about 2,000 Euros per person, per year. And most of it is going to regimes we are not fond of, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia or Algeria. I tell mayors we can be more efficient by installing renewables—we can keep half of this money locally or, in the longer term, we can keep all of this money locally.
We also show what has happened in villages where these cooperatives have existed for 10 or 15 years. In these villages, young people don’t leave because renewables create jobs. The energy supply is stable, and these villages and surrounding regions thrive. That’s how we try to build pressure at the higher level so that we can pass legislation that benefits cooperatives.
For instance, in Belgium, we want the state to acknowledge that the wind is not owned by someone who owns a piece of land. In the United States, if you drill a hole in the land and you find oil, it is yours. In Belgium and in Europe, that’s not the case: the oil or the coal underground is a common good and it will be the government who decides who can exploit it for economic reasons. And we want the same for wind because it is a common good. It’s essential that energy is in the hands of the local players, because otherwise, people won’t support an energy transition. They’re going to be against wind turbines in the neighborhood if the profits go to big companies somewhere else.
What can an individual do if they want to start a cooperative or build energy independence for their community?
Our European federation, REScoop.eu offers tools and best practice guides for starting an energy cooperative and also examples of people who have founded an energy coop. We also have experts from established cooperatives who are willing to share their knowledge. People who want to learn more can read a new guidebook we published together with Friends of the Earth Europe and Energy Cities.
There are other frameworks that some states offer, such as Scotland’s financial tools for energy communities, the CARES scheme. A recent European Union directive, REDII, obliges all member states of the EU to set up such an enabling framework, to help communities get started with tools and funds. Individuals can contact their member of parliament or their minister of energy and ask how their state plans to set up this enabling framework. That’s the big challenge we see. If states don’t provide money to help communities, nothing will happen.
At Patagonia we have a long history of exposing the harms that hydropower brings to communities, species and planet, and our position is clear: All dams are dirty.
We are advocating for energy democracy across Europe, and we know that some renewable energy communities include hydropower in their energy mix. While we respect their right to make decisions about what is best for their community, we will continue to voice our concerns about all forms of hydropower, including small dams and diversions. And we will continue to advocate against the inclusion of hydropower in the renewable mix and in plans that seek to address climate change. —the Editors
Connect with grassroots environmental groups near you that are working to find solutions to the climate crisis.