This week is EU Sustainability Energy Week. Hundreds of conferences take place in Brussels aimed at politicians and policy makers. The hoteliers and restaurant owners of Brussels must be very grateful.
One conference was organised by Co-operatives Europe, a trade association which flies the flag for co-ops in the Brussels corridors of power.
Co-operatives Europe highlighted that energy co-ops of different kinds are springing up all over Europe. Some are a way for local residents to own a share in a local energy generator such as a wind farm, without which financial connection the residents might be more inclined to say "Not In My Back Yard". Other energy co-ops are formed by housing associations to give tenants in a block of flats shared ownership of large scale solar PV panels on the roof.
There are two other businesses like Co-operative Energy, one in Flanders in Belgium and one in Piedmont in northern Italy - there may be more. And there are co-ops bulk buying energy efficiency products - like external cladding and insulation materials - at wholesale prices for use by the houses in a street or neighbourhood; much more efficient to treat a group of houses at the same time.
Hearing about all these grass roots initiatives, I was struck by two things.
Firstly, the co-operative model of joint ownership by consumers is very versatile and adaptable to different circumstances, though common to them all is the fact that self-interest is sometimes best achieved by clubbing together.
Secondly, I was struck by how isolated these projects are and how likely it is that the wheel will be reinvented. This made me think of how established trading co-ops such as ourselves could start to sponsor, support and – most importantly - replicate community energy schemes in return for access to the power they generate which we would want to buy for our customers. A win-win situation, certainly.
We are already doing that to a certain degree. We're the largest shareholder in West Mill Wind Farm near Swindon which is a community-owned wind farm, and we presently buy the power generated by two of its five wind turbines.
To cut a long story short, there is a huge business opportunity for energy co-ops across Europe. Energy co-ops are solving lots of problems which the private sector or individuals can't tackle. Co-ops are engaging and protecting energy consumers where previously consumers were sidelined or, even worse, ripped off.