As you are reading this sentence, the first clients of the Coopérnico cooperative will be receiving their first bills for green energy. Present in the liberalised Portuguese energy market since 22nd June, this social economy company also provides anyone interested with the opportunity to invest in renewable energy. Find out how.
It is one of the 56 organisations recognised by the Directorate-General of Energy as being able to trade in electricity, but it is not yet registered as a supplier with the ERSE (the Regulatory Body for Energy Services), whose website lists all the companies that can supply the market at present, in this case the domestic market.
The explanation is simple, but the history dates back to the end of 2013. Coopérnico’s first steps were taken by a group of 16 people. They came together to invest some 307,000 euros in small photovoltaic systems, the majority under the mini-production regime.
Today, the cooperative has seven production units, with an installed capacity equivalent to about 227 kW, which allows 350 megawatts to be generated per year. A capacity that ensures a supply of electricity to an estimated 120 to 150 families. Now they are also in the market for selling energy.
“Our initial idea was to do all the marketing” of the electricity independently. However, this meant a choice, which was decided at the most recent general assembly of the cooperative last December, as the president of Coopérnico, Nuno Brito Jorge, explained.
“Either we could make a very significant investment to be able to join the market independently, or we could opt for a gradual process,” he said.
“The problem is that, to join the market, we have to give bank guarantees to EDP/Distribuição and to REN,” the companies that control the electricity distribution infrastructure in Portugal, “of about 50,000 euros each,” he explains.
“Then we would need specialist software, three network supervisors, an invoicing team, and more bank guarantees for the Iberian electricity market. So, either you have a lot of capital to start the activity autonomously,” or you find another way.
“We prefer the alternative. We are working in partnership with a supplier, which is a Portuguese SME, Enforcesco. In this way, we can start slowly, with a very competitive price, so that more people join us. This is a guarantee that we will have critical mass in the future when we are independent, and will thus be able to increase our share capital,” he explains.
Enforcesco is already operating in the liberalised market with the brand Ylce (Yes Low Cost Energy), one of the 11 suppliers active in the domestic electricity market, according to ERSE. As stated by ERSE last March, this market represents a total of 3.9 million clients, 69% of the total number of domestic consumers.
“At present, anyone wanting to be a client of Coopérnico has to be a member of the cooperative and can have up to five contracts. And they have access to the cheapest electricity on the market for domestic clients,” he adds.
To formalise a contract with Coopérnico, you need to purchase three shares worth 20 euros each, which makes you a member of the cooperative. The contract for the electricity supply is done on line. If you want to leave the cooperative this sum is reimbursed.
Cooperative members also have access to consultancy services, such as analyses of invoices to optimise energy consumption and the capacity contracted.
The prices are given in euros per kilowatt/hour, and there are two-tariff and three-tariff options.
“Our concern was never the question of price, but rather to be a social economy company, democratic and green,” principles that are still upheld in reality.
“As we were not going to succeed in joining the market at present in a fully independent manner, we took advantage of the situation to give our members a competitive advantage.”
“To date, we have been growing at a rate of two clients and one new member per day. We are right at the beginning. Our first clients are receiving the first invoices,” he says.
Geographically the clientele “is well distributed across the whole country. It is mainly in Lisbon and Porto, but the Algarve is increasing in importance.” In terms of numbers, there are 246 members, 74 contracts and a total investment of €327,000.
It must also be added that, when it does not manage to produce more energy than that consumed by its clients, Coopérnico is committed to buying green certificates issued by renewable companies. In that way, it ensures that all the energy it supplies is green.
In 2014, Coopérnico organised a total of six photovoltaic projects in different parts of Portugal: in Mangualde (Viseu), Palmela, Lisbon and Tavira. All of these are producing green energy today.
In addition to the investment made by the founders, this start-up was supported by three European renewable energy cooperatives – Beauvent (Belgium); Som Energia (Spain) and Waterland (Holland) – through the creation of a European consortium. Coopérnico has a stake of 17.52 percent.
“It is as if it was a consortium. We are the holders of the solar systems and we own 25 percent. The foreign cooperatives own 75 percent and only receive dividends,” he explains.
“Now our objective is to raise more investment from our members and return the money to the foreign cooperatives,” until they are the owners of the whole infrastructure.
“Until the photovoltaic systems are wholly ours, we will give our members the possibility of using part of their savings for the production of clean energy and the creation of real value,” through investing in the Coopérnico portfolio.
And, in practice, what is the advantage for the investor? “Imagine you have 1,000 euros to invest in the portfolio. You can consult the simulator we have on-line. You will see, for each year, how much you will receive in interest and how much in capital. Until now, we have had fixed interest rates of 4% over 12 years,” an amount that has remained unchanged.
“What distinguishes us from normal banks is that, instead of us keeping this capital for the period of 12 years, just paying interest, we amortise the sum invested. That is, during the first year, you will receive 40€ in interest (4% of the 1000€) plus 66€ in amortisation. In practice, you invest 1,000 euros and receive 107 euros in interest and capital,” over a dozen years.
“Now we are launching tranches of 20,000 euros in investment. We launched one at the beginning of June and we reached 18,500 euros. In July, we collected 15,000.” Nuno Brito Jorge thinks that demand will pick up again after the end of the summer.
With no marketing, but with a European spirit
“We believe above all in word-of-mouth and this type of media coverage” and journalism. We are doing something good for society, with no profit motive. We don’t have funds for major campaigns,” the president of the cooperative joked.
“By the end of the year, we want to have reached 450 members and electricity clients. We don’t know if we will succeed. We are preparing a communication plan for the last four months of the year to see if we can leverage growth a little,” he told us.
Also before the end of 2015, “we want to launch a new renewable production project, within the new legal framework for self-consumption,” preferably without third-party capital.
In Europe, there are around 3,000 energy cooperatives, a third of which are in German. In Portugal, the idea of citizens coming together to invest in projects for generating green energy on their own premises still causes surprise.
“Here, next to us, in Spain, we have a good example, the Catalan cooperative SOM Energia, created in December 2011. Today, it has 20,966 members and 26,544 supply contracts. As suppliers, we are following the Nordic model. We just need to remember that, in Denmark, 80 percent of installed wind capacity is owned by cooperatives. The people are the owners of the production stations. Here in Portugal, exactly the opposite is happening.” It is all in the hands of the big companies and investment funds.
Nonetheless, and despite its youth, Coopérnico is the 11th member of REScoop – the European Federation of Renewable Energy Sources Cooperatives. Next October, it will be in Crete, at the invitation of this organisation, to hold a workshop about new cooperatives.
The European network involves 296 cooperatives and groups linked to green energy. “They are almost all like tutors for us, but they are proud to see what we are trying to do,” he says.
The 7th staging of the GreenProjectAwards Portugal competition awarded a prize to Coopérnico in the category “Mobilisation” on 21st January. It is a major international prize which has already received 1,000 applications and honoured over 60 projects for sustainable development.
The plans also include social action. “We want to have volunteer members organising projects in their regions. In the Algarve, we already have a group being set up. Till now, we have only invested in solar power, but in the future there could be hydro plants, and small wind stations,” he concluded.
Since the start of 2015, it has been possible for a consumer to produce energy for direct consumption in the home – the self-consumption regime. According to the consumer rights association (DECO), “with the end of preferential tariffs, the attractiveness and profitability of energy production was seriously affected: it became increasingly difficult to obtain a return on investment except in the long term.” “Now with self-consumption, we can sell electricity to any installation and charge a price that is better for us than the price of the preferential Iberian tariff. However, the risk also increases for a cooperative like Coopérnico,” according to Nuno Jorge Brito. “If I have panels on the roof of your house and if we sell you electricity cheaper than EDP, we always run the risk of you not paying us. Till now, in the stations we have producing, it was the state that made the commitment to pay. If there is no political madness, until now we know that they will pay us.” Brito admits that Portugal lost a lot of time in setting up energy cooperatives and does not hide the fact that Coopérnico should have come into being at least five years ago. “This does not mean that this model of self-consumption will not work. Now, what we need to be cautious about is the risk.” For now, this format of self-consumption is still at the stage of legal analysis and Coopérnico will only provide more information when it has an initial project of this kind to announce.