Our visit to EcoPower, the brilliant Belgian energy coop

Carbon Coop is one of 5 pilot sites around Europe taking part in the Nobel Grid project. Last week, as part of a project meet-up, we visited the Belgian pilot EcoPower, an energy generation and supply cooperative, supplying over 48,500 member-investors with electricity (around 1.5% of all households in Flanders).

Early in the morning we drove out to Eeklo, a town of around twenty thousand people to meet one of the co-op's founders Jan De Pauw, who showed us around.

Eeklo was the location of the first EcoPower wind turbines and 5 of the 8 turbines in the town belong to the cooperative. This is largely due to the progressive tendering process used by the local council, who alongside seeking an annual site rent of €25k, asked tenderers to demonstrate additional benefits they would bring to the local community. As a cooperative wholly owned by its members EcoPower was able to provide significant evidence of local involvement and participation and was awarded the concession.

 

EcoPower only sells to its member/investors, but as minimum investment is so low, the coop now supplies over 500 of the 8,000 houses in the immediate area and last year was able to provide power at 20% below average market rate. Amazing what you can do when you don't have to generate profits for external shareholders!

We visited one of the more recent turbines a 2.3MW installation, which uses ‘direct drive’ technology, rather than having a gear box - resulting in the smaller egg-shaped turbine (energy geeks can click on the image below for more details). This means that though the turbines are more expensive to install, they run very quietly and require much less maintenance – Jan says over 20 years the costs are the more or less the same.

When we arrived the turbine was in ‘shadow mode’ - the blades were not turning – this happens for around 20 minutes a day in the 6 months of the year when the shadow of the turbine falls on a local industrial unit. By law turbines can't cast a moving shadow on people’s homes or work places, as the rapid and intermitant changes in light might do the occupants’ heads in. Very civilised.

Said 'industrial unit' is actually a municipal waste incinerator and EcoPower are currently negotiating a process by which they can reclaim some of the waste heat produced by the plant for for energy production. 

We had our meetings in the 'Eeklo centrumstad', an inspirational business and industrial site with a number of carbon-neutral buildings (the first in Belgium), as well as solar production and a bio-diesel combined heat and power plant (running at 250kW). The bio-diesel plant is only run during the daytime and only in winter, when PV generation is low and the surrounding buildings need heating. As well as generating power the plant also recovers the heat produced in a 120,000ltr insulated water plant, which will form part of a heat-main they are currently installing.

The feedstock comes from local farmers, who were persuaded to replace imported soya animal feed by growing their own rapeseed, the solids from the crop (2/3 by weight) is fed to animals and the remaining oil is burnt in a conventional diesel generator. The only alteration necessary was to add a heating element to the oil store, which heats the oil to a consistent 60 degrees before burning – this deals with the oil being more viscous than fossil-fuel diesel. Jan’s view is that bio-fuels only really work at a smaller scale such as this, where feedstocks can be locally sourced without adversely affecting local food production or the environment. Really reassuring to see such holistic thinking, EcoPower are definitely our kind of people with a brilliant cooperative model.

Everywhere you can see the social elements of the co-op's work, such as a second-hand goods store on-site providing employment for local people who’ve found problems finding employment elsewhere. There is also a solar shelter in the town where local residents can charge their electric bikes for free!

But before you pack your bags to move to this energy utopia, the future is not all roses. Jan points out that new local renewable production can’t compete with the cheap Icelandic renewable certificates that are being slapped on local nuclear and fossil fuel energy. Basically, as Norway and Iceland have 100% renewable energy, they can ‘grey’ their energy by selling 30% of their renewable energy certificates to Belgian dirty energy producers and still claim to be 70% renewable themselves. The danger is that this will continue to undermine the expansion of local renewable energy generation for the foreseeable future.

So Merci, Dank u wel & tot ziens to EcoPower, we look forward to welcoming you to Manchester next year.

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