A few weeks back, I was on vacation in a northern German small town, talking to an old friend over coffee, waiting for the rain to pass so that we could get our bike ride in the nearby hills started. I told him about my research here at Sitra, which is mainly concerned with local energy solutions in Finland, and in passing he mentioned his involvement in setting up a coop-owned wind turbine. Needless to say, I had to get that story down.
In 1993, a 54m-high wind turbine went online in Hattendorf, a village of about 550 inhabitants close to Hannover. Yearly, it generates an average of 374.000kW/h, which is enough to provide energy for about 90 three-person households. What is remarkable about the project is that it was realized at a time when wind energy in Germany was not yet the safe and profitable investment that it is today. Instead, the founders of the coop took a risk with installing a (at the time) powerful 350kW turbine. Thus, the members of this coop were early adopters of an increasingly common ownership model, as coop-owned wind parks in Germany are now more popular than ever (see here). They took a pioneering role (along with many similar initiatives) in establishing a specific way of bringing sustainable, bottom-up energy into their communities.
This project predates the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) with its favorable legislation by many years as it was realized in 1992-1993. Where today wind power is a safe and profitable investment in Germany, the situation at that time was different. The “Growian” experiment with a single 3MW turbine had turned out to be a spectacular failure, leading to the realization that big-scale wind power was not (yet) feasible. Small-scale projects were often do-it-yourself solutions prone to failure and high maintenance costs.
Still, a small core group of about 10 people decided to aim high and realize an ambitious, actually profitable project. The tasks at hand were clear: securing the financial backing through the coop and finding a suitable site for the wind turbine.
Finding investors was the easier task, as the initiators found them in their own social circles – a heterogeneous group of colleagues from work, spouses, farmers, public servants, and locals interested in an environmentally (and financially) sustainable investment. Together with a government loan, they were able to secure the necessary sum of 230.000€. As word-of-mouth was enough, the coop did not have to seek investors through advertising.
In the beginning stages meetings were regular, as many decisions had to be made. The members of the coop participated actively in the building process where possible, for example in laying the foundation or clearing the construction site from stones. Ironically, the coop had to plant fruit trees to account for the negative environmental effects of the wind turbine – a task mainly taken up by the farmers organized in the coop.
Now, the members of the coop meet once a year, for dinner and the yearly finance report (always positive).
Finding a suitable site, engaging with dark matter so to speak, was initially problematic, as the coop was not able to get the necessary permits or the support of the land owners for the best possible site, a hill with good wind conditions from every direction. They had better luck with the second site however – though on lower ground it would provide sufficiently good wind conditions. As my friend put it: Compromise, transparency and fairness when engaging with other stakeholders were key to securing the site and making the project happen.
Would something similar be possible in Finland?
A recent article in Taloussanomat argues that Finland needs new coops as an investment in the welfare of its citizens. Following the example of Germany or Denmark, wind power would be the perfect candidate. Finland does have a rich tradition of coops, but there are few examples for coop-owned renewable energy sources. The Jylhänkoski water power plant or Lumituuli Oy, a customer-owned wind power plant close to Oulu, are impressive exceptions.
Empirical research in Germany (and elsewhere) has shown that community ownership can significantly improve the local acceptance of wind power – Finland could certainly profit from a similar development, as acceptance of wind power in general is relatively high while the opposition to concrete projects is at times quite strong. A platform like Brickstarter might contribute to bringing people interested in such a project together – in a way, coops are the original social network-based crowdsourcing initiative.