GoiEner: Power to the People

Last month, I was able to spend two weeks in San Sebastián (or Donostia in Basque), a beach town that looked and felt surprisingly similar to the northern suburbs of my hometown, San Diego. San Sebastián’s population swells in the summer and the narrow streets of la Parte Vieja are full of tourists and vacationers from across Europe. On the surface, it can seem like a town for outsiders to enjoy Michelin-starred restaurants and surf lessons, but after meeting more locals I quickly saw how San Sebastián is also home to people deeply engaged with their local community, striving to find regional solutions to global issues.

GoiEner is a consumer energy cooperative doing just this. It aims to bring “together thousands of people with the desire to change the current energy system, and to work to achieve a model which is based on 100% renewable energy.” GoiEner commercializes renewable energy so that consumer-members can make a conscious decision to purchase only clean energy to power their home.

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View from Monte Urgell in San Sebastián – Donostia

There are three components to the energy business in Spain: generation, distribution, and sales. Just eleven years ago due to requirements from the EU, the Spanish government decentralized the energy industry and opened up the market so private companies could sell energy from the grid. After this shift, Spanish citizens decided that they wanted to put their money towards green energy specifically, so Spain adopted a renewable energy certificate system: every kilowatt of solar/hydro/wind power produced in Spain has an equivalent certificate. GoiEner commercializes energy from the grid and buys an equivalent amount of those green certificates each year, creating an investment in renewable energy as demand increases.

Members get energy bills from GoiEner every month that include basic tariffs and taxes. However, as a cooperative, GoiEner doesn’t have a large profit margin that other utility companies charge in order to pay their shareholders. Instead, their smaller profits get reinvested back into the coop for job creation and growth.

I met with Joanes Maiza, the founder and president of GoiEner, and Meghan Sapp, a GoiEner member, volunteer, and token native-English speaker (a fellow Californian!) in their San Sebastian offices, a small group of rooms in a building off the typically Iberian Plaza Easo. Joanes, a Basque environmentalist and cooperator, modestly recounted GoiEner’s history to me with translation help from Meghan.

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Meghan and Joanes
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The GoiEner San Sebastián offices

Before the 2008 economic crisis, energy was not particularly expensive in Spain and the average consumer was less focused on energy production, explained Joanes. But the 2008 economic crash coupled with radically increasing energy prices created a collective shift in consciousness. People started asking where exactly they were putting their money.

GoiEner began in 2012 with just 30 people (they currently have around 7,000 members). Joanes’ original idea was to produce renewable energy to sell directly to citizen-members, but the structure of the Spanish market did not allow for this. They began with commercialization and are now about to invest in their first production projects. However, even these first steps took time. By 2013 GoiEner had 700 members and still had not bought any energy. They just had 700 people ready to “make a statement and stand up and say even though we can’t buy the energy yet it’s important that we make this social change… When you buy electricity with GoiEner, you are making a statement.”

Corruption in Spain

Cooperatives form when people find a common need. In Spain’s case, the common need is a clean energy system free from government corruption. “Spain is corrupt. There’s no other way to say it,” said Meghan. “And the energy market is exceptionally corrupt. There are five major players that are all tied in with the government.” Spain has an over capacity to produce electricity, but at the same time they have the most expensive electricity in Europe.

Spain used to be the largest renewable energy producer in Europe. But in 2008, the Spanish government canceled their subsidy programs in large scale renewables and even sabotaged existing projects. There are 26 legal cases against spanish government in international courts. Meghan explained, “By becoming a member of GoiEner… it’s really flipping the bird at the national system. Even though we are small doing little things and not buying or producing huge volumes, it’s an act of protest.”

Global Problems, Local Solutions

Becoming a member of GoiEner is both an act of national protest and an investment in a better local future. The small profits made at GoiEner go directly to opening offices in the Basque Country and Navarre, creating local jobs rather than consolidating money in the hands of the rich and powerful in the giant multinational companies. Joanes modeled GoiEner after the largest cooperative in Catalonia, SomEnergía.

However, Joanes wants to stray from SomEnergía’s more centralized cooperative model in favor of a more regional and economically distributed model—embodying the concept of renewable. The cooperative will remain focused exclusively on the Basque Country even though they are entitled to market energy elsewhere in Spain. Joanes would like to see other local cooperatives be formed in this fashion and has already supported six local cooperatives elsewhere in Spain. “It’s about changing people’s minds because they’re your neighbors not because they’re some guy in Madrid… And bringing them all together, replicating this model all over the Spanish state, Europe, and the world. And that’s your new solution to changing the system.”

Learning cooperation

Sustainability means continually improving. GoiEner is learning day by day how to thrive as a cooperative, with two major references: Mondragon Corporation and NER group. My thoughts on Mondragon will come in a later post, but simply put it is the Basque Country’s largest and most famous cooperative. Mondragon has grown so large, however, that many criticize it for losing the cooperative vision and falling back to ‘business as usual’. NER began when a group of Mondragon workers split from the corporation to found an organization that promotes non-hierarchical, flat management structures and the rotation of responsibility for workers. GoiEner workers are trained by NER leaders, and they are attempting to build an independent philosphy that takes into account the strengths of both Mondragon and NER and adds criteria related to the new Basque citizenship.

But as a consumer cooperative, GoiEner functions differently than Mondragon or NER businessesl. All the workers are members, but they own less of the company than members of a worker cooperative of the same size. Workers do, however, also add more money to the social capital of the cooperative than the average member: workers put in 1000 euros while consumers contribute to the social capital with 100 euros.

GoiEner operates with a similar  governance structure as other Basque cooperatives and includes three levels of workers. They try not to generate big gaps in salaries from one level to the other, and these salaries are controlled by the Board of Directors which is comprised of workers and volunteers. This structure is “important to get the social balance of the business. This balance is the key of a consumer coop,” Joanes explained.

Joanes stressed that they were always trying to make adjustments and fine tune the model, using other organizations such as Konfekoop (the Basque coop confederation) and Erkide (the Basque coop federation) for guidance. Eventually, Joanes said something that I would hear again and again during my research: “We are composed of humans and we make mistakes, it doesn’t matter what is the model… The transparency and horizontal structure is what is important.” They strive “To keep the values continuously clean, refreshed.”

The future

Joanes was Introduced to energy cooperative model in Belgium fifteen years ago, where he was a member of a local wind energy coop. “I used to think it would be very easy in Basque Country because of our culture of cooperation and economic power… but the energy system is managed in Madrid,” he explained. “At the moment, I see a dark future. That is why we need to continue supporting the project.”

Joanes is modest, pessimistic, and possibly realistic. But others in the company are more optimistic. Meghan estimated that they’re probably at the halfway point in terms of membership. It’s easy to join GoiEner. You fill out a form online and send in 100 euros and you’re done. But “there’s those who do and those who talk, and we’ve got the doers.” Now, they’re looking for a way to catch the others—your friend or family member who knows we’re facing a crisis but would rather relax after a long day at work than calculate their carbon emissions.

“We’re never going to be a million, but that doesn’t matter,” Meghan claimed, reaching out to Joanes in support.

Joanes replied with a stoic certainty. “But if we want to change the system, we should be worried. The climate changes won’t wait, temperature of water is increasing and weather impact is here, we’ve just already seen this summer at the Caribbean Sea. It is a race against the clock.” And of course, his goal is to change the system. “We are doing good steps, but the problem is the speed. And climate change is knocking at the door.”  

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A final message from Joanes after reviewing this article: We need USA coops leading a transition in the North American energy market, this fact would be an important inflection point in our goal. Cheer up, Michaela!!

I agree Joanes! Anyone up for the fight?

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