Wolfhagen Stadtwerke Public-Commons Partnership

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Keir Milburn, Bertie Russell:

"One approach for pursuing such a commoning of society could be through the development of Public-Commons Partnerships, such as that developed in the town of Wolfhagen, Germany. In 2012, Wolfhagen developed a form of ‘cooperative participation’ that would make the municipality and a new cooperative – BEG Wolfhagen – joint stakeholders in the town’s energy utility, Stadtwerke Wolfhagen. This has meant that both the ownership and the decision-making process of the town’s energy infrastructure is distributed outwards, with the municipality acting as a partner that guarantees collective forms of decisional-participation over both assets and surpluses. The setting up of BEG Wolfhagen was driven partly by the lack of the necessary financial resources to fulfil the city’s goal to become 100 per cent self-sufficient in renewable energy, and partly by a vision of a coproduced and co-owned energy system, Speaking in 2011, the director of the Stadtwerke Martin Rühl explained:

Through the cooperative participation we want to make the citizens not only co-owners and co-earners, but through the form of a direct participation in the Stadtwerke also co-decision-makers. For future projects, citizens and electricity customers will be at the table from the very beginning.

The cooperative holds a 25 per cent stake in the Stadtwerke and is only open to those who purchase electricity from the company. Valued at €2.3 million at the time of its formation in 2012, the cooperative’s stake was funded through the sale of shares (with a maximum of five per member). To ensure membership in the cooperative is inclusive, new members are given a two-year period to pay for an initial share in twenty instalments. Most immediately, the formation of BEG Wolfhagen generated sufficient capital investment to facilitate the establishment of a solar park, contributing to the town achieving its goal of producing 100 per cent renewable energy by 2015.

The cooperative has two members sitting on the nine-person board of the Stadtwerke, and thus has voting rights on all issues concerning electricity production and supply in the region, ranging from the setting of energy prices through to the reinvestment of financial surplus. Meanwhile, members of the cooperative receive an annual dividend (which was around 4 per cent in 2016), whilst the remaining funds flow into the cooperative’s energy saving fund. The cooperative’s Energy Advisory Board – which is comprised of 9 cooperative members alongside one each from the local energy agency, the Stadtwerk, and the municipality – then develops strategies and initiatives for increasing energy efficiency among its members. In practice, this means that the citizen cooperative has a direct role in the energy industry development of the region, and the implementation of the energy transition in Wolfhagen.

Such Public-Commons Partnerships do more than devolve power downwards, they distribute power outwards. Rather than reducing the residents of the city to consumers (whose ability to shape society is limited to their purchasing decisions) or an electorate (where political expression is solely through irregular elections and consultations), participants in the cooperative experience their capacity to act as collective decision-makers. Meanwhile, the distributed model of governance means that power – understood here as the capacity to shape the collective conditions under which we live our lives – is less concentrated in the state apparatus. Rather than a centralised and paternalistic state making decisions on behalf of consumers and the electorate, we instead see the possibility for distributed forms of governance that incubate and promote new forms of relationships between citizens. Furthermore, through the co-financing process, citizens are enabled to have a stake in the ownership and governance of capital-intensive sectors – something that is often unattainable for cooperatives and mutual associations, due to the sheer quantity of liquid capital required." (http://renewal.org.uk/articles/what-can-an-institution-do)