Towards a Strategy for Dutch Energy Cooperatives

Local Renewable Energy Cooperatives can play an important role in accelerating the needed energy transition. George Overbeke collaborated with DRIFT on the organization of a strategic dialogue of the cooperatives in the context of the TRAPESES research project, and wrote his thesis on this interesting subject. In this blog, he elaborates on his research.

To begin with, I want to bring to everybody’s attention the poor performance of the Netherlands in terms of renewable energy production. The Netherlands is ranked 25th in the EU28 in terms of renewable energy production! Our country managed to produce 5,7% renewables in 2015 of its total energy consumption, which is still far away from the 2020 goal of 16%. Part of the problem boils down to the fact that most of the electricity is still generated in large centralised power plants which use fossil fuels.

Local Renewable Energy Cooperatives (LREC) can be seen as an alternative as they produce renewable energy in a decentralised manner. As a student I wanted to learn more about bottom-up initiatives in the renewable energy sector and how they could become a driving force in the needed energy transition. DRIFTer Antonia Proka had a similar interest and great expertise in studying these communities so it was a great opportunity for me to collaborate with her and research these LREC further.

Local Renewable Energy Cooperatives are interesting alternatives for producing energy as they attempt to include the locals in the process. As a result, their projects are very well embedded in the community which is an important factor to foster an energy transition. However, LREC remain very small. I wanted to investigate which conditions are most important for upscaling (i.e. producing more renewable energy).

To figure this out, I first created a theoretical framework to map potential for upscaling. I conducted a literature review and selected 15 sources from the Strategic Niche Management (SNM), Grassroots Innovation (GI) and Social Entrepreneurship (SE). In the retrieved academic articles I deducted 29 conditions that were mentioned to be important for upscaling. I clustered these conditions into 6 different categories: internal organisation, intrinsic motivation, network, political influence, learning and external conditions.

The second step was to empirically test this framework in practice. Therefore, I first wanted to have insights from cooperatives that were more experienced in upscaling, meaning they were existing for at least 25 years. Four cooperatives in the Netherlands were identified to meet this criterion namely Deltawind, de Windvogel, Zeeuwind and Meerwind. I conducted interviews with representatives from each of these cooperatives to identify which of the 29 conditions from the literature they thought to be most relevant. It became evident that the condition having the right people on the right place was most relevant: in order to have a well-functioning cooperatives, essential positions within the board need to be covered. These main functions are a chair, treasurer, engineer and secretary. Especially in the early stage of establishing a LREC, these roles need to be clearly defined to create a division of tasks and responsibility.

In addition to interviewing these four cooperatives I sent out a questionnaire to 15 other, less experienced cooperatives, existing less than 7 years. In the survey these cooperatives were asked to rank the 10 most important conditions in their opinion and provide some extra explanation about their choices. A more diversified result was retrieved from the questionnaire in which four conditions were seen as most relevant: having a dedicated board, the skills of the board, the positive view in the community and having local political support. These four conditions were determined to be equally important for the younger cooperatives. It was mentioned, for instance, that a dedicated board is needed to overcome the numerous challenges a new cooperatives will face. This demands the board to be persistent in achieving their objective and following the set strategy.

By looking at which conditions were determined to be most relevant for upscaling in the case study and interview I drew my conclusions. This determination was based on the number of times a conditions was selected as relevant. From the testing of the theoretical framework in practice I came to the conclusion that cooperatives should first focus on their internal organisation by having in place the right people on the right place and having people with the appropriate skills to manage a cooperative. After having these internal conditions in place the cooperatives should focus on other conditions such as finding local political support to realise projects.

This study was designed to be of explorative nature. Future studies related to this topic could test the framework by making a better evaluation system to judge which criteria are important. Moreover, this research focused on Dutch cooperatives but looking a LREC in other countries could also serve as an interesting cross-country case study to determine what factors can help LREC grow.

My name is George Overbeke and wrote this thesis as part of my master Earth System Governance at Utrecht University. I am currently working as a business development consultant for the Solar Provider Group (SPG). In this job, I establish partnerships with land-owners, local neighbours and municipalities to explore the possibilities of installing ground-mount solar projects. New developments are taking place that make this sector very dynamic to work in. I will be travelling to Latin-America in 2018 and conduct a market research for SPG in Colombia. If you wish to know more and want to ask a question or have other comments feel free to send an email or connect on LinkedIn.

Read more
Download Georges masterthesis here and download the reference list of this blog for more interesting reads. Do you want to know more about the strategic dialogue and the outcomes? Read the complete report here.

January 2, 2018