UrStrom eG: Best practices for broadening the ownership of renewables citizen action
IRENA berichtet in der neuen Broschüre „BEST PRACTICES FOR BROADENING THE OWNERSHIP OF RENEWABLES“ unter anderem über die Mainzer UrStrom eG.
Die vollständige Broschüre steht hier zum Download bereit: Irena
- Dates of operation: 2010 – present
- Main activities: Citizen energy co-operative for construction of regional solar PV systems, supply of regionally produced green electricity, and operation of regional e-car sharing programme powered with 100% own green electricity
- Technologies: Solar PV
- Number of projects/capacity: 17 (totalling 1.1 MWp of installed capacity)
- Financing: Co-operative shares, loans from members
UrStrom Citizen Energy Co-operative Mainz eG (UrStrom) is the ﬁrst citizen energy co-operative in Mainz, capital of the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Launched in 2010, the co-operative aims to contribute to the energy transition in the region through building a clean, democratic and decentralised energy supply. As such, it focuses on the construction of solar PV plants within a 100 kilometre (km) radius of Mainz.
As of 2021, UrStrom has grown to more than 470 members. The co-operative owns and operates 17 PV systems making up over 1.1 megawatts-peak (MWp) of installed capacity – enough to supply about 260 four-person households. The smallest system (installed on a private roof) generates an annual output of 7 MWh, while the biggest system (installed at a paper factory owned by an international company) produces 378 MWh per year. Together, these systems combine for over 1 gigawatt-hour (GWh) in annual average production to generate approximately 720 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO2)/year in avoided emissions.
UrStrom has actively pursued the use of renewable energy in decarbonising other end-use sectors. In 2018, UrStrom pioneered a citizen-owned electric car (e-car) sharing project powered entirely by green energy. Eight e-cars have been made available to share at ﬁve locations across Mainz, and almost 260 customers have signed onto the project. In response to growing requests from citizens, UrStrom is about to establish neighbourhood e-car sharing locations. Based on this experience, the co-operative co-founded The Mobility Factory, the European platform for citizen-owned e-car sharing. UrStrom was also a founding member of a German umbrella co-operative for e-mobility, Vianova eG, in 2020. Beyond transport, the co-operative is now looking at how to support the resource-efficient use of land through agri-photovoltaics.
Interview with Annette Breuel, Editor and Head of Event Management, UrStrom
Q1. Why did your community want to get involved in renewable energy?
“And there is magic in every beginning…”. This line of verse could be the headline of the founding story of UrStrom. In 2010, six of us from the same region met at an advanced training course, “Project Developer for Energy Co-operatives”, with participants from all over Germany. All of us realised we had been independently pursuing the same idea for a long time: the grassroots energy turnaround. We shared a vision of climate protection, preservation of peace and the conservation of creation. Along with these goals, the participation of citizens had to be a priority.
This was at a time when the number of citizen co-operatives was growing rapidly in Germany – yet there was not a single one in Mainz. So we decided to start our pioneering work here. Our plan was to build PV plants, which produce 100% clean green electricity, within a radius of 100 km.
We launched UrStrom with nine founding members in September 2010. Our preamble stated: “By the production of renewable energy and the democratic structures of a co-operative, an environmentally friendly, socially just and at the same time economic energy supply shall be promoted. To this end, UrStrom offers opportunities for participation and involvement.”
Q2. Please describe the governance and decision-making processes established for UrStrom. What are members’ roles in making key decisions?
All members work on a voluntary basis. Our principle is a ﬂat hierarchy, which allows free development of ideas and visions from each individual. The supporting pillars are the UrStrom meetings, which take place on a monthly basis and are attended by the management board and the supervisory board. Members who support UrStrom actively are also invited to participate with their corresponding topics. All important decisions are prepared, discussed and made at these meetings.
The annual general meeting is another signiﬁcant element. Here, among other things, the supervisory board is elected, which controls the work of the management board. Each member has one vote, regardless of the number of co-operative shares he or she holds.
As our membership grew and we tackled more and more projects, we realised that the four members of the board of directors working in the ﬁelds of technology, energy operations, ﬁnance and marketing could no longer handle the tasks alone. So we looked for voluntary supporters among our members – and found them easily. For efficient internal structuring, we developed an organisational chart for the ﬁrst time, with clearly deﬁned areas of responsibility and competencies.
Q3. How do members benefit from being part of UrStrom?
Our mission is to be part of a community that wants to achieve an ecological as well as a social rethinking of its own and society’s behaviour. Gender considerations have not been a main priority, but it is interesting to note that UrStrom was founded by two women and seven men. Today there are three women and six men on the management and supervisory boards. This gender ratio is also reﬂected in our membership: one-third are women. Among the actively supporting members, the proportion of women to men is one to ﬁve. Depending on the task at hand, each member is involved in numerous projects according to her or his knowledge and capacity.
Besides our pioneering work in solar PV, our co-operative is proud to be leading the transport revolution in Mainz. With our project UrStromMobil, we laid the foundation for a new way of mobility placed in the hands of citizens based on the principle of “sharing instead of owning”. At the request of environmentally conscious citizens, we set up e-car sharing stations in their districts and provide them with cars powered by our 100% regionally produced green electricity. For some of the users, this offer was a reason to sell their own car, book UrStrom vehicles and switch to public transport or bicycles.
To create a feeling of togetherness, we founded the “UrStromClub” in 2011. We invite our members and interested guests to a monthly meeting in a separate, cosy room of a pub. Through our UrStromClub, we get to know each other personally, present planned projects and goals to the participants, and promote a lively exchange of ideas and discussions. Out of this circle, for example, 15 members have offered their assistance in areas such as IT, administration, data protection, project acquisition and PV monitoring.
In addition to the club, our annual event “UrStromUnterwegs” (UrStrom on the road) showcasing lighthouse projects of the energy transition serves as inspiration and is another means of engaging members.
Ninety percent of our members invest their money in their UrStrom co-operative for idealistic reasons, to promote renewable energy and to combat climate change. With the current sluggish climate and energy policy of the German government, we are convinced that change will only happen through civic engagement from the bottom up.
Q4. What have been some of the major challenges of establishing and operating UrStrom?
In 2010, we had no idea how much bureaucracy we would face. However, right from the beginning it was clear to us that our work – without any references – would be a struggle. Yet with the trust placed in UrStrom by the head of the Mainz Department of Environment, in 2011 we successfully co-operated with the city’s waste disposal company to build and commission our ﬁrst PV plant. With this plant, the company became one of the ﬁrst in Germany to produce and consume its own renewable electricity.
One of the biggest challenges nowadays are the constant changes in the Renewable Energy Act (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz) of the German government. These changes have always worked to the advantage of powerful big corporations and to the disadvantage of the citizen co-operatives. As a result, no two contracts are ever the same when it comes to building PV systems. This lack of predictability is nerve-wracking and wearing, particularly for a co-operative whose members work on a voluntary basis. It is thwarting civic commitment.
Tenders have also acted as a tool to favour big groups and hinder the democratisation of energy production. Their aim is to preserve structures of power, supported by government – despite the many advantages that a citizen-owned energy transition entails.
UrStrom has become a known and respected co-operative in Rhineland-Palatinate. In 2014, we co-founded the Bürgerwerke eG (1), today the largest co-operative association of citizen energy in Germany.16 Through the Bürgerwerke we sell UrStromPur, the electricity from our plants, to our customers. However, bringing about political change for more PVs and e-car sharing continues to be a challenge for us. Through our contacts with the city’s Department of Environment and the Ministry of Environment and Energy, we try to get government support for our vision and goals by written petitions and personal encounters.
(1) Bürgerwerke (https://buergerwerke.de) provides people all over Germany with renewable citizen electricity from solar PV plants, wind and hydropower as well as with sustainable biogas from organic residuals, produced in a sugar beet factory in eastern Germany.
Q5. COVID-19’s impacts are being felt in nearly every aspect of life. Has the pandemic impacted UrStrom, and if so, how?
The pandemic has severely affected the supply of goods – mainly PV modules but also supplies for the transport market. This has caused prices to rise, which is an expensive affair for a small co-operative. By contrast, the number of customers in our electricity and gas sales businesses increased significantly.
We are feeling the effects of COVID-19 as well in our e-car sharing programme. We cannot organise large informational events for people interested in establishing new e-car sharing stations in their own neighbourhoods. So right now it is difficult for us to build “mobility communities”. In addition, environmentally aware people currently have less need for mobility.
Corona measures have also impacted our UrStromClubs, as in-person group meetings were not allowed indoors or outdoors. In February 2021, we decided to have monthly virtual UrStromClubs. Although they have been well received by members and guests, the big disadvantage is that personal contact is missing.
Q6. What are some key lessons you would like to share?
We have initiated major projects in support of the regional energy and climate transition, and we have achieved a lot in the past ten years. Yet we could achieve even more if the government did not hinder our co-operative work. But even if the road remains rocky and is beset with more and more obstacles, we made the right decision in founding UrStrom. We have learnt a lot about creative ways to overcome political blockades, and we have won over many wonderful people for our co-operative.
The magic of the beginning and the motivation to continue despite resistance from political circles have left their marks on us. We need perseverance more than ever, and we must continue to push for the energy transition from the bottom. Only together, that’s clear, are we strong.
© IRENA 2021
Citation: IRENA Coalition for Action (2021), Community Energy Toolkit: Best practices for broadening the ownership of renewables, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi.
About the Coalition
The IRENA Coalition for Action brings together leading renewable energy players from around
the world with the common goal of advancing the uptake of renewable energy. The Coalition
facilitates global dialogues between non-governmental and governmental stakeholders to
develop actions to increase the share of renewables in the global energy mix and accelerate
the global energy transition.
About this paper
This white paper has been developed jointly by members of the Coalition’s Working Group
on Community Energy. Using a case study approach, this white paper by the Coalition for
Action highlights different ways communities actively participate in energy decision-making
around the world and harness renewable energy’s potential to deliver economic, social and
environmental benefits for a just transition.