Our world is currently facing a serious crisis; and no one doubts the dimension and complexity of the closely intertwined economic, social and environmental challenges to take up. In line with the transition movement, possible solutions to break the deadlock would rely on collective and citizen-based initiatives. Regarding the energy transition, these citizen initiatives go by the sweet name of REScoops, for Renewable Energy Sources cooperatives.
The sector of renewable energies developed in Europe at the end of the seventies and was rapidly dominated by corporations. Voices thus rose to question the corporate hegemony in the sector and the appropriation of common goods for private interests. It is in the line of these reflections that Renewable Energy Sources cooperatives (REScoops) emerged in some European countries in an attempt to counterbalance this corporate hegemony and to foster the appropriation of local energy resources by citizens with an objective of energy sovereignty (Coen, 2010). REScoops rely on groups of citizens who organize at a local level to move forward to an energy transition. They implement a bottom-up and collective dynamic based on the active participation of citizens and the involvement of multiple stakeholders (municipalities, local economic players, other cooperatives, etc.). REScoops definitely tackle the problem in a systemic perspective, taking up not only energy and environmental, but also social and economic challenges by offering an alternative business model that promotes citizens’ involvement in the decision-making processes, a sustainable way of energy production and short circuits between production and consumption.
The development of REScoops contributes to what some authors consider as a renewal of the cooperative model (Borzaga & Spear, 2004; Gijselinckx et al., 2007). Specifically, cooperatives turn out to be particularly appropriate in new fields meeting current societal challenges, among which renewable energy. As stated by Huybrechts and Mertens (2011), developing cooperatives in renewable energy sector is attractive for several reasons. REScoops partly rely on the equation ‘members = consumers = investors’, which implies three advantages: (1) as cooperative members, the consumers are involved in the governance structures and have a control on the profits allocation and the applied prices; (2) the investors being also consumers, it strengthens the balance sheet structure; (3) as cooperative members, the investors/consumers have access to a transparent information about the management of the cooperative and the green nature of the energy, which is part of consumers/investors concerns. Besides, by involving citizens in the process, REScoops increase social acceptance for renewable energy sources and the construction of RES facilities. Finally, REScoops appear efficient in contributing to environmental concerns by delivering 100% green energy and promoting energy consumption reduction as well as a rational use of energy.
Regarding the economic, environmental and ‘societal’ efficiency, the question to ask is: “Why do REScoops still represent a very small share within renewable energy market across Europe?” Huybrechts and Mertens (2011) already identify some barriers to their development: difficulty to raise sufficient funds, difficulty to find appropriate locations to set up the facilities, configuration of the pre-existing energy market, poor recognition of the cooperative model, etc.
In this context, an urgent need to work on REScoops can be identified to reinforce their assets and diminish barriers to their development. The research project in which I am involved – the REScoop 20-20-20 project – precisely aims to contribute to this issue. The project sets out to identify and assess the best practices in European REScoops; the idea is to learn from existing RES cooperatives and to find out the do’s (the success key factors) and don’ts (the pitfalls to avoid) in developing REScoops in Europe. Building on this assessment of best practices, the research project aims to design REScoop business models and provide citizens with proven schemes. Capitalizing on the best practices and sharing the RES proven business models will contribute to diffuse and scale up the REScoop model throughout Europe and accelerate the starting-up of new RES citizen-driven projects.
This first part of the research project has obviously a managerial interest as it aims to provide citizens and potential entrepreneurs with proven business models to develop in renewable energy sector. It also places the REScoop 20-20-20 project in an ideal place to deliver recommendations to the EU, national and regional institutions. The project also has a scientific interest as it goes further in the exploration of the assets and weaknesses of the cooperative model in the development of new fields. But this initial research mostly opens avenues for future research. Indeed, most of the weaknesses and barriers that hinder the diffusion of the REScoop model appear rooted in a more general weakness, that is the lack of recognition and awareness of REScoops and of the cooperative model in general. Using neo-institutional arguments (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; Scott, 1995) and particularly the recent developments around institutional work (Lawrence et al., 2009), the analysis of the legitimacy and the legitimating strategies that cooperatives may use to have their organizational arrangements recognized as economically, environmentally and especially democratically superior (Huybrechts & Mertens, 2011) appear to be particularly relevant to progress on the road to a sustainable energy transition
This research is conducted within the REScoop 20-20-20 project supported by the Intelligent Energy Europe Program (European Commission). More information: www.rescoop.eu.
 All the people involved in REScoops don’t wear the “triple hat” but REScoops generally rely on a great part of people having these three positions.
Coen, J.-M. (2010). Energies citoyennes. In: Solidarités des Alternatives Wallonnes et Bruxelloises (ed.). Les dossiers de l’économie sociale: Initiatives citoyennes, l’économie sociale de demain? Monceau-sur-Sambre: SAW-B.
Borzaga, C., & Spear, R. (2004). Trends and challenges for Co-operatives and Social Enterprises in developed and transition countries. Trento: Edizione 31.
Gijselinck, C., Develtere, P., & Raeymackers, P. (2007). Renouveau coopératif et développement durable. Leuven: HIVA.
Huybrechts, B. & Mertens, S. (2011). Renewable Energy Source Cooperatives (REScoops): Assets, Obstacles and Diffusion Strategies. 3rd International Social Innovation Research Conference. London.
Lauwrence, T. B., Suddaby, R. & Leca, B. (Eds.) (2009). Institutional work: actors and agency in institutional studies of organization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Powell, W. W. & DiMaggio, P. J. (1991). The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Scott, W. R. (1995). Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Julie Rijpens is in charge of research and communication issues at the EMES European Research Network for the project REScoop 20-20-20; she is also completing her PhD in management sciences at HEC-ULg (Belgium) about the issue of the institutionalization of governance models in social enterprises. Julie Rijpens holds a MA degree in management engineering (Université Catholique de Louvain, IAG-Louvain School of Management) and an interuniversity MA degree in Development, Environment and Societies (UCL – ULg). As a researcher, her main interests concern the issues of governance, business models and the institutionalization processes of organizational practices and structures in social enterprises. She also conducts expertise and consultancy missions for social enterprises on their governance models, in particular on the roles, composition and functioning of their board of directors.
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