“There were evenings when we almost gave up.”
By Emmanuel Fontaine, City of Mouscron
How did the Mouscron energy cooperative come into being and what are its plans for the near future? In December, Energy Cities met with Emmanuel Fontaine who is both the City of Mouscron’s energy adviser and one of the cooperative’s trustees. He told us about the long, but enriching process that led to the creation of this unique energy cooperative. According to this cheerful Belgian, with a clear passion for his work, such a project requires perseverance, tenacity and strong motivation. Below is a shortened version of the interview. You can also download and listen to the unabridged conversation by clicking on the link on this page.
In 2017, the city of Mouscron launched an energy cooperative in the form of a public-citizen partnership. Can you tell us more about how this cooperative operates and who is involved?
Emmanuel Fontaine: The idea for this cooperative emerged following the drafting of the 2012 Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP) by the City of Mouscron, which wanted to break new ground with this action plan. The action plan included a number of measures, involving citizens, the municipality and mobility. At the city’s Energy Department, we started thinking about alternative financing methods. This was after the POLLEC 2 plan (a regional energy and climate policy) was launched, which gave subsidies, precisely to help local authorities search for alternative financing. This is how the City of Mouscron’s Energy Department turned to an external company to help us set up this cooperative. […]
You said this took time…how long exactly?
Emmanuel Fontaine: Between the decision to do something innovative and the visit to the notary’s office, two years went by, with ups and downs, as things weren’t straightforward. At the beginning, it was easy, because it had been decided that it had to be a cooperative. The project was submitted to the city council and they told us a cooperative would be preferable. We therefore knew we had to set up a cooperative, but this did not mean we had it up and running: we needed members, trustees and founders to set the cooperative in motion. All this took an awful lot of time because although the cooperative was a City of Mouscron initiative, it was a private cooperative with citizens at the helm. It was therefore truly innovative. Since the City of Mouscron is under administrative supervision, any budget decision has to be approved and this led to additional delays in setting up the cooperative. With the Energy Department and the assistance of this external company, we organised city hall meetings which proved to be a success. People who attended these meetings were really motivated by the initiative and that’s how the cooperative got its first members.
“We needed members, trustees and founders to set the cooperative in motion”
What was the motivation for the first members to join?
Emmanuel Fontaine: It was a truly innovative project. In Mouscron, or even in the region, energy cooperatives were unheard of. In Wallonia, some can be found around Namur or Liège, or in Walloon Brabant, but not here. We also had a very active circle interested in energy savings, short supply chains, etc. That is why people were so keen to hear about this totally innovative cooperative. The positive point that really helped us was that the City of Mouscron financially backed up the project. The negative point was that it was such an innovative project that the city sometimes found it hard to keep up. But we focused on the positive aspect which was that the city underwrote the cooperative. People came and joined. They weighed up the pros and cons and said “ok, I want to be part of it and buy shares in the cooperative”. The shares had a €250 nominal value and people could invest up to €5,000. This was the cooperative’s regulation. Return on investment, in the form of dividends, was expected to reach 3-6% after a few years. Of course, the dividends have to be discussed at the general meeting once a year. The balance sheet for the year is presented and if there are surpluses, we decide whether to distribute them or reinvest them in other projects. But again, having members is fine, but we also needed highly motivated members that were ready to do more than just buy shares. We needed founding members. This is crucial when setting up a cooperative, because if you don’t have any founders you won’t have a cooperative.
What are the profiles of these citizens?
Emmanuel Fontaine: Among the founders, you have different categories: the City, which underwrote the cooperative as the founder, and the company Aralia. Because we were new and knew nothing. The other members were ordinary citizens who were neither technicians nor renewable or PV experts.
We were new and we knew nothing.
There was therefore Aralia, specialising in the installation of high-capacity PV panels in the Brussels area, which was familiar with administrative procedures and controls, etc. And Energiris, another cooperative operating mainly in the Brussels area but also here and there in Wallonia and maybe also in Flanders. So we had 3 legal entities, the municipality, Aralia and Energiris. The rest were citizens. To set up the cooperative, we had to go to the notary’s office with the founders and €20,000. We ensured that half of the €20,000 was in the hands of citizens. The City of Mouscron, Aralia and Energiris invested €3,000 each, i.e. €9,000 in total, which means citizens had €11,000. It took 15 citizens and 3 companies to attain the €20,000 and set up the cooperative. Then, the cooperative needed articles of association, which meant a lot of meetings with the companies and partners who had to invest not only their money but also their time, spending long, although not stormy, evenings working on and discussing the technical and administrative terms to define and draw up the articles. This took a lot of time, with sometimes meetings twice, or three times a week. […] Once we had all the articles drawn up, and the €20,000, we were able to go to the notary’s office to finally found the cooperative. […] All this took quite a lot of time and we officially signed the incorporation deed for the cooperative with the notary in Mouscron in May 2017. We can say the cooperative was founded in May 2017 but almost 2 years went by from the first tentative steps until the signature at the notary’s office.
…it was therefore a long process which required patience to see it through.
Emmanuel Fontaine: It was a long process and there were evenings when we felt like packing it all in and almost gave up. But the next day, we would receive some good news and call everybody in. During these two years, there were ups and downs in the incorporation process. But in the end we managed it.[…]
What modes of governance are used on a daily basis? How often do you meet?
Emmanuel Fontaine: We have a Board of 8 trustees. The President is Ann Cloet, the deputy burgomaster in charge of the environment, energy, finances and early childhood. There is also the Energiris representative. That makes 2. And then we have 6 citizens, ready to step in when we have a meeting. We try to meet at least once a month, in general, or more often if we have projects or decisions that need to be made rapidly or urgently. If we don’t have a meeting, we communicate via e-mail.
As far as I have understood, you have highly democratic procedures. Is it one member, one vote?
Emmanuel Fontaine: One member, one vote, yes. Regardless of whether a member has 20 shares, or just 1 or 2, they will still only have 1 vote. We have 105 members and most of them are local people from Mouscron. […]
Concretely, what is the mission of the cooperative?
Emmanuel Fontaine: We set up this cooperative to carry out one of the actions of the City of Mouscron Sustainable Energy Action Plan. We first worked on renewable energy. After all that had been said about PV in Wallonia, we wanted to be a facilitator for people and give everybody an opportunity to install PV panels on their roofs. It had been our hobbyhorse since 2017. We prepared specifications and requested proposals from Mouscron tradespeople because we wanted to work with local businesses. All three made good offers but we decided to work with one company which seemed more in line with our “Mouscron for citizens” mind-set. We are still working with them now. So our objective was really to make things easier for people to install PV panels. In Wallonia, at that time, there was a subsidy called Qualiwatt bonus which was paid annually over 5 years. […] So people who installed PV panels had €500 coming in every year. A very complex formula was used to calculate the subsidy, based on installation costs and the electricity price. But every year installation costs kept on decreasing whilst unfortunately electricity prices went up, thus making installing PV panels more cost-effective, and the bonus was reduced. At the cooperative, we had come up with a business plan where we could tell people “you have panels installed and we will pay you the Qualiwatt bonus upfront”. So instead of them receiving €500 at best every year, we paid them €2,500 euros directly or deducted this amount from the installation costs. Let’s say the installation cost was €6,000, we took off €2,500 euros and the homeowner only had to pay €3,500. People were happy because they did not have to find the additional €2,500. Every year we collected the Qualiwatt bonus. We had found a way to collect it because normally, the bonus would be paid only to the owner of the EAN code, and thus to the person paying the bill. What we did was to open a joint account with the owner into which the bonus was paid every year. And it was a huge success. Between May 2017 and June 2018, so in under a year if you count the holidays, we completed 100 installations. The system was naturally advantageous for residents. They had nothing to worry about and no documents to fill in, as the cooperative and the installer took care of everything: paperwork, visits, etc. They just had to ask for a meeting with us and the installer, and myself, or another trustee accompanied the installer to the person’s home because we liked to have this contact with people and the installer wanted to see the house on which the panels would be installed. He measured the roof and assessed the feasibility of the project, if there was no shade, all kind of technical stuff. People were happy because it was not just someone looking at their roof on Google Maps, we made sure everything was in place and they were satisfied. Unfortunately, in June 2018, the Walloon government decided to stop the Qualiwatt bonuses on the grounds that the projects did not need the bonus to be cost-effective.
For us, this meant losing the main advantage of installing via an adhesion at COOPEM and our original activity was drastically reduced. Now, all we can count on, but that’s fine with us, are neighbours and word-of-mouth. People contact us to know if we still install PV panels, if it is the same installer, they ask about prices, etc. We continue to provide the same service, but without the Qualiwatt bonus, and things are moving much more slowly than before. Before, it was €2,500 less, but now the price of the equipment has come down, the difference is not as high as it used to be.
So that is the situation for the residential sector, but beyond that, we also have a scheme for larger installations. It is a completely different context, with green certificates instead of Qualiwatt bonuses. These are large capacity installations, above 10 kWhp. We’re talking of SMEs and other businesses with large installations. We provide third-party financing. We pay for most of the installation costs and the company pays the rest, namely, between 10 and 25% at the very most. We pay ourselves back by selling the green certificates obtained from producing green energy and we also get part of the savings they make on their annual energy bill.
What would be your advice to a town or city wishing to take the plunge as you did?
Emmanuel Fontaine: Several people from several municipalities have contacted us at the Energy Department – because we are the cooperative’s contact point. The cooperative has no paid staff and everybody works on a voluntary basis. So my colleague and I, who work at the Energy Department, are the contact persons for the cooperative. What you have to know is that you have to persevere and be tenacious and extremely determined to set up a public-private cooperative like this. It isn’t easy and you must never give up. By yourself, you would give up, so you need to have the support of people who know something about it and have citizens you can rely on. Because, when you set up a community cooperative, you need the support of citizens. Drafting the articles of association was really hard. It’s no piece of cake these articles, it’s purely administrative stuff. You need people who understand the technical and legal terms. And you can’t say: “You, you work in such and such branch, but you’re no lawyer or clerk”. No, you have to accept everybody. […] We learn as we go on and that’s really great. So you need to be steadfast, tenacious and have people to hand who have some expertise about the subject. […]
What motivates you on a daily basis in this job for the cooperative and in the energy and climate area in general?
I know our cooperative is probably just a drop in the ocean, but I believe it is important.
Emmanuel Fontaine: As a cooperative trustee and member of the Energy Department, there are things that should be done, but which, in my opinion, won’t happen because we don’t give people what they need. Politicians make grand speeches; we have COPs every year or every two years. So we have these speeches, but nothing concrete follows. Resources are lacking. Not just money, we also need human resources, we need to engage with people and this takes a lot of time. I know our cooperative is probably just a drop in the ocean, but I believe it is important. […] Every day, at work, I’m happy when someone calls and asks if we still do PV and enquires about our projects. […] There is so much to do. It’s my leitmotiv. It’s not always positive because there are days when we have negative answers or projects take longer to take off the ground, as working with a municipality is complicated. Public procurements, calls for tenders, all these take time. We may dream about something at night but it won’t happen the next day. It may take 6 months. It’s complicated but that’s what motivates me to be part of the cooperative and in my job at the Energy Department.
Great! We wish you all the best with this mission. Thank you very much for this interview. Thank you, Emmanuel.
Emmanuel Fontaine: Thank you.
This interview was also published by Energy Cities and is brought to you by the EU project mPower. mPower explores how cities and citizens can manage the energy transition together – in a fair, clean and democratic way. Participation can happen at various stages: from involving citizens, local NGOs or businesses in the policy design to any stage of the energy value chain: for example as shareholders or even prosumers.
The mPower project gets funding from the European Horizon 2020 programme.