Spain’s energy cooperatives are leading the way in harnessing solar energy

As the government signals a shift in regulations that favor energy conglomerates, community efforts are gaining traction.

The government declared that some of the current renewable energy allocations will be in small lots rather than enormous tranches that only giant energy corporations can pay, giving a boost to Spain’s growing energy cooperative movement. Following consecutive governments’ submission to the demands of the electricity companies, this step signifies a shift in mindset. It comes as rural and urban cooperatives aim to break free from major electricity suppliers, who took advantage of strong demand during the recent heat wave to raise prices to new highs.

Friends of the Earth’s energy spokeswoman, Cristina Alonso, praised the government’s apparent shift in attitude as “a positive step – but not one that truly promotes energy communities because it doesn’t define what they are.” These must be defined as democratic and truly self-governing.” Since the repeal of the so-called “sunshine tax” in 2018, solar installation has exploded. In 2015, the right-wing administration enforced this on self-sufficient users in order to deprive electricity corporations of revenue. Consumers were also required to provide their excess energy to the grid at no cost. With no oil or gas and little coal, Spain’s most valuable energy resource is sunlight, which is still underutilized. According to the Spanish Electric Network, renewables contributed for 43.6 percent of energy output in 2020, with solar power accounting for only 6.1 percent and wind (21.7 percent) and nuclear power accounting for the rest (22.2 percent ).

Even though Germany received only 1,896 hours of sunlight in 2020, compared to almost 3,000 hours in Spain, Germany has three times the amount of solar electricity installed. In countries where the majority of people live in single-family homes, anyone can choose to install solar panels. However, in Spain, 66.5 percent of the population lives in apartment buildings, which are frequently a mix of owners and tenants, making the situation more complicated. Installing solar panels on the rooftops of public buildings such as schools, factories, and warehouses, which can give electricity to neighboring households and businesses, is one answer to the difficulty of getting everyone to agree to invest in renewable energy for a multi-occupied facility. The non-profit Sustainability Observatory has proposed a rooftop campaign that would generate 15,400GWh, enough energy for 7.5 million people, for a six-year investment.

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Athletic Bilbao football club is offering this to their neighbors. The club added 300 solar panels when it built a new stadium in 2013, and its subsidiary Tekathletic now provides electricity to 200 homes and businesses within a 500-meter radius at prices that are 25% less than the current rate. A similar project is underway in Zaragoza, where the NGO Ecodes has partnered with the power company EDP and the local government to launch the Solar Neighbourhood initiative. EDP provided and installed solar panels on the roofs of two municipal sports centers, each generating 50kWp, enough to power 200 houses and businesses in the area.

Participants in the scheme do not pay up front for the installation, according to Cecilia Foronda, the head of energy at Ecodes, because those who are not homeowners are not inclined to invest. Participants pay a monthly quota of €6.90 (£5.90) to cover the cost of the installation and receive electricity at a discount of roughly 30% off the market rate. For individuals who are least able to pay, the quota is waived. Ecodes is seeking European funds to replicate the program in six other Zaragoza neighborhoods, according to Foronda.

Meanwhile, Som Energia (We Are Energy), which claims to be Europe’s oldest energy cooperative and was created in Girona in north-east Spain in 2010, has roughly 70,000 members. According to Albert Banal-Estanol, the co-president, op’s the democratically controlled cooperative serves as a nexus for smaller co-ops across the country. Members pay a €100 membership fee, which is later refunded. When people want to put solar panels on their roofs, Som Energia advises them to organize a local cooperative and then buy in bulk since it is not only cheaper, but it also creates an energy community that spreads the message about self-sufficiency.

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“Last year, we had a project that cost roughly €5 million, and we invited members to contribute money that would be repaid from the revenue generated by selling extra electricity to the grid,” Banal-Estanol explains. “We set a 15-day target, but we met it all in one day. “We want to expand this model, but we’re not preoccupied with expansion,” he explains. “All we want is for renewables to develop.”

Now that the government can no longer stifle the cooperative movement, the big power providers are getting in on the act, offering to support rooftop installations for communities in order to keep their customers. A genuine energy community, according to Alonso, has social and environmental goals in addition to economic goals. If it’s just a case of a firm supplying renewable energy, “the company still owns the installation, you have a contract with them, and the only difference is the electricity comes from solar panels.” According to Foronda, “the main power corporations are reorganizing themselves from selling electricity to selling services.” “However, we must ensure that citizens have access to energy self-sufficiency since it empowers them.”