“The entire economy should embrace the principles of the social economy”
A conversation with Syed Ahmed and Nuri Palmada
Energy cooperatives play a vital role in the energy transition towards a more democratic and sustainable future. By adhering to the cooperative principles outlined by the International Cooperative Alliance, energy cooperatives distinguish themselves in the way they conduct business. In anticipation of the International Day of Cooperatives on July 1st, we had the opportunity to sit down with Syed Ahmed, chair of Repowering London, and Nuri Palmada, board member of Som Energia. They shared their insights on what it means to be an energy cooperative and how the cooperative principles shape their organisations.
Repowering London has been at the forefront of establishing community energy projects in economically challenging areas of London where initiating such projects can be particularly daunting. Syed Ahmed has been helping them expand their work for seven years. Nuri Palmada played a pivotal role in the creation of Som Energia, a Spanish energy cooperative that produces and supplies renewable energy and now has over 80,000 members.
Nuri, as one of the founders of Som Energia, what inspired you to start this project?
Nuri Palmada: Som Energia started about 12 years ago, at a time when the urgency of climate change was not as evident as it is today. Nonetheless, our motivation was to fight climate change and transition towards a renewable energy model with energy production in the hands of citizens.
Syed, having had an extensive professional career in the sustainable energy industry prior to joining an energy cooperative, how do the cooperative principles resonate with you?
Syed Ahmed: When I first joined Repowering London, I wasn't familiar with all aspects of the cooperative principles. However, as I delved into them, I found them very interesting. To me, these principles represent an opportunity to generate value within the community, keep the money circulating locally, and engage local businesses in the projects. And that's very, very different from the vast majority of projects that go ahead in the UK!
How do you ensure that your organisations uphold and adhere to the cooperative principles?
N. P.: The cooperative principles are embedded in our statutes, internal regulations, and objectives. Moreover, as a registered cooperative, our economic activities are regulated by law. We are committed to ensuring that the benefits derived from our cooperative activities are shared among the community, as opposed to benefiting only a select few, as often seen in private companies.
S.A.: Repowering London was born out of the cooperative movement and we are familiar with it. We apply the cooperative principles to each and every project we undertake. Our Management Board has established robust rules, establishing separate cooperatives for each project we deliver, thereby ensuring that the community manages it. While Repowering London provides back-office services to the cooperatives, the decision-making power lies with the board of each project's cooperative.
The first cooperative principle is open and voluntary membership. Repowering London has made significant efforts to integrate people from diverse backgrounds into its projects. How do you ensure inclusivity?
S.A.: Operating in the most diverse part of London, we make it a priority to reach out to as many people as possible, including those who may be socially disadvantaged or living in areas facing unemployment issues. We actively engage with the community, work with local community groups such as food banks, kitchens, and gardening groups, knock on doors and talk to local representatives. Investing considerable time and effort allows us to reach people on the ground. That’s the only way to achieve real open membership.
Moreover, to ensure that no one is left behind, we have implemented a one-pound membership policy. This policy enables people from any economic situation to become a member of the cooperative, granting them voting rights and co-ownership of the installations.
Democratic member control is indeed another cooperative principle. Nuri, what structures does Som Energia have in place to ensure democratic control by its members?
N. P.: At Som Energia, the General Assembly serves as the major governance body, with each member holding one vote. We also have a Governing Council elected by the General Assembly. However, the real challenge lies in fostering an informed and conscious voting process, which epitomises true democratic participation! To achieve this, Som Energia has a dedicated team working exclusively on facilitating informed decision-making. They foster member engagement through working groups, document sharing, webinars and other means of fostering active participation.
Som Energia also has local groups. What role do these local groups play in the governance of the organisation, and how do they interact with the General Assembly?
N. P.: Local groups within Som Energia operate on a voluntary basis and contribute to the cooperative's activities through self-management. Although they don’t have additional representation power, these groups provide an environment for debate and knowledge sharing. Self-management is in the DNA of Som Energia and these groups are an extension of that. They are self-organised and they appear spontaneously in some areas, without any top-down approach.
Energy cooperatives belong to the social and solidarity economy. What role does the social and solidarity economy play in today's capitalist system?
N. P.: In Spain and in Catalonia, the social economy has traditionally focused on the third sector, which includes voluntary or non-profit organisations and providers of social services. However, it should take a step forward to be a real alternative within the capitalist system. Social economy organisations should believe in their capacity to grow and replace other companies while having a positive impact. The entire economy should embrace the principles of the social economy.
Is this what Som Energia is doing?
N. P.: From my perspective, yes. However, I'm concerned about excessive regulations that can limit the growth of the social and solidarity economy. For instance, limitations on the size of energy communities might prevent them from operating on a larger scale. We are going towards a model that remains dominated by big energy companies with an extractivist business model and leaves a small space for exemplary projects. We need a shift in the energy sector that allows projects like ours to have a significant impact, rather than just being confined to a small niche. I am worried about this. We, citizens, do not want just the crumbs, we want it all.
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone wanting to create an energy cooperative?
S.A.: Once you have a team of good people, great things can happen, so the most challenging aspect is finding other individuals to work with you. Reach out to people and ask them about their interest in the project. Engage them actively and encourage them to take ownership of the project. Partnering with groups that have already delivered similar projects can provide valuable guidance too. Remember, you don't need to reinvent the wheel!
N. P.: First and foremost, it’s important to have a high level of genuine motivation. Individuals should be driven by a deep passion for the project rather than their personal career or financial motives. This intrinsic motivation will sustain you through the challenges and complexities that may arise along the way.
To learn more about the cooperative principles you can watch this video that explains them and showcases how energy cooperatives around Europe are living those values, including Repowering London and Som Energia.