Portuguese communities go green with novel energy cooperative model

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Enlit Europe’s Initiate platform seeks to highlight startups and scaleups in the sector making an impact and driving change.

To this end, Smart Energy International spoke to a scale-up company on the cutting edge of the energy transition in Portugal, capitalising on the growing concept of energy cooperatives, to drive clean energy uptake, and empowering consumers.

This week, we introduce Nuno Brito Jorge, founder of Coopérnico, to learn more about their business model and how they have navigated the startup to scaleup landscape.

Nuno, please explain the concept behind Coopérnico

Coopérnico is a Portuguese renewable energy cooperative that involves citizens and companies in shifting the energy sector for the benefit of society and the environment. We support the development of new renewable energy power plants financed by its members, provides green electricity and delivers energy services to citizens and SMEs.

Do you think energy cooperatives becoming a trend in Europe and how will this change the energy landscape moving forward?

Citizens are more aware of the reality around them and want to be part of the change towards the green energy transition. Energy communities and energy cooperatives are in fact two options for citizens to organize themselves in order to achieve that goal.

Obviously, citizens can individually take different actions in order to be more energy efficient or to live in a more sustainable way but, actually, if you want to have a voice in the energy market, a collective action/initiative/project is the way to go: there is strength in numbers.

What distinguishes cooperatives in the mind of people is the fact that they are created by the people for the people. Is this true also in your case and how do you serve/help the members of the cooperative and your clients?

Yes, it´s true. Energy cooperatives have an open and voluntary membership and democratic governance where each person or company who is a member-only has one vote no matter how many capital shares of the cooperative they own.

Coopérnico was established in 2013 by a group of 16 citizens with different backgrounds but common concerns about the environment, climate change and sustainable and ethical investments. They recognize that more renewable energy is key to a cleaner and brighter future for all and believe that citizens can invest their savings in making that new reality come true, while also receiving benefits for their investment.

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Fast forward to 2021, Coopérnico´s work is divided into three areas: production, supply and energy services. The first area, production, is all about our investment projects where our members have the ability to come together and help Coopérnico, their cooperative, to promote renewable energy projects. How?

Coopérnico collaborates with other organisations in the social sector for the installation of photovoltaic projects on their rooftops and sell the energy to grid or to the rooftop owner to be used by families and business.

The revenue from that sale is given back to the members of the cooperative who have invested in that installation and to the institution where the PV central was installed. So far we have installed more than 2 MWp of power capacity totalling more than €1,8 million ($2.1 million), spread out between 29 projects in Portugal, only with citizens’ investments.

Our second area of work is the supply of our members with green electricity which was one of the first services they have required from their cooperative.

Finally, our third area of work is energy services: listening to our members’ requests we get involved in national and European research projects to develop new services to satisfy the changing citizen’s needs. Additionally, we partner with local businesses to provide discounted services and products to reduce our members’ environmental footprint. In the end, we can conclude that all services and projects we develop are always with a citizen ´centric approach mindset.

Do you believe your business model is contributing to the Green Deal as presented recently by the EU Commission and if so, how?

Yes, we do. Coopérnico´s vision is indeed to help create a fair and responsible energy model based on renewables, contributing to a social, environmental and sustainable energy future. We do it by providing services for people to attain that same vision or to participate in the energy transition. Examples of such services are the possibility to help create decentralized renewable energy projects, to choose green electricity to supply their home, to have a more energy efficient behaviour, to help to tackle energy poverty or to be a part of an energy community.

How difficult or easy is it to reach international levels for a scale up or a small company? What are the causes for it?

Coopérnico mainly focuses on Portuguese citizens and SMEs. However, we are active members of several European organizations such as REScoop.eu where we contribute to pushing the European Commission to create legislation that put citizens and renewable energy at the centre of European political agendas. Besides Europe, we have some additional contacts with other renewable energy communities in Portuguese speaking countries such as Brazil.

What support/actions enabled your scale-up from start-up?

We don’t really see ourselves as a startup, scaleup or company. We’re more of a movement, with a clear mission and using a business activity to achieve it: democratizing the energy sector. Actually, the most important support we ever got was right at the beginning, before we’d even be considered a startup by normal standards. It was the financial support of 3 European rescoops that helped us invest in our first 4 projects, which were great trust builders for the rest of the growth to come.

How did you come to decide on starting this business and when did you reach the point of being labelled a scale-up?

We started Coopérnico out of inspiration from cooperatives in other parts of Europe, most significantly from Som Energia in Spain, but also out of observing the huge need for change, fairness and democracy in the Portuguese energy sector.

What role do you think scale-ups can play in the energy transition?

Both startups and scaleups are the biggest triggers of innovation in the energy sector. They bring news to the market all the time and, more importantly, they put a lot of pressure on the incumbents to modernize and innovate their businesses. They might end up providing services to these incumbents, disrupting their businesses or even being acquired by them. Many of them will fail and, even those that do, have played a role in this push for transition.

With cooperatives, the same happens. We’re not necessarily the innovators or inventors, but we certainly are potential early adopters and play a huge role in the transition to a more democratic energy system.

What are your next steps and future plans?

We plan to grow more and faster in our electricity supply business while adopting innovative business models and billing schemes that place end-users more and more in the centre of the energy system. We’ll also be attentive to opportunities in the energy communities space. In regards to production, our plan is also to keep pushing for net self-sufficiency.

We also believe we have a role to play in supporting the appearance of more energy cooperatives and communities in Portugal.

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