Greece has been in the news far more than it probably wanted to over the past few years. Everyone knows about the beauty and history of the great country, however recently the focus has been on the economy and refugee crisis. In response to this, a number of initiatives have started, and the social enterprise sector has taken off. We managed to talk in-depth to Ignacio Navarro, general manager of the social co-operative Electra Energy, a Greek cooperative enterprise that focuses on the development of renewable energy social investments, aiming to produce, manage and commercialise renewable energy to it’s members and other communities.
Why and how did you start Electra Energy?
Back in 2016, the team of Electra worked together to set up investment plans for residents and farmers communities of the Region of Lamia (a rural town in Central Greece) aiming to replace their oil burning furnaces with biomass systems that burn leftover olive trees cuttings to produce heat and hot water. As a result of this promotion, the Municipality proposed the development of the first bio-energy school community of the Region, turning the old oil boiler into a biomass combustion unit, and engaging the local community to clean their forests and provide their feed-stock to the school. The project served as inspiration to the founding members in the ambition of setting up a legal enterprise and promote initial services, technical consultancy and networking.
Electra Energy was thus launched in September of 2016, and the main purpose is to create job opportunities through the promotion and development of collective investments on renewable energy. Electra forms part of an Eco-system of social enterprises related to the promotion of sustainable energy, and it is co-partner of the organization SEYN (Sustainable Energy Youth Network) a non profit organization established in Belgium, who act as a mentoring and educational body for new entrepreneurs interested on the promotion of sustainable energy transitions.
What legal form did you adopt and how does this help or hinder you?
In Greece there are many different cooperatives enterprises which operate under different frameworks and operational rules. Electra Energy Cooperative was launched as a “KoinSEp -Koinonikes Sindeteristikes Epixiriseis N4430/2016”, defined as an economic, business, productive and social activities undertaken by companies or associations, whose purpose is the pursuit of collective benefit and service general social interest.
Compared to other existing frameworks, this legal form is the most flexible and involves less financial and legal risks to its members, a fact that was crucial during the constitution since the founding members wanted to test the business approach by running the minimum cost and risks at least during the initial steps, and it was also the form requiring less amount of administrative work and time for it’s constitution.
What are the social and environmental goals that get funded through your profit?
Our goal is to find collective investments to develop and produce renewable energy in Greece, and to be able to be launched as an energy supplier to compete in the local markets, always aiming to the social added value of giving open membership, participation and support to new and existing members.
During the first ten months of operation, we have focused on community engagement, networking with potential stakeholders, and identifying project opportunities that align with the principles and objectives of the organization. Right now the cooperative is initiating the permiting process for a small wind turbine in North Greece and participating in the legal work to allow better legislation to allow an investment on solar self consumption for multiple tenants.
The cooperative aims it’s economical activity to grow and attract social investments based on the principle of “renewable energy as a common good”. A common is a shared resource managed by a community who create rules to make the resource durable. The resource cannot be monopolized by one or a group of individuals. We aim to create business models that preserves these principles while contributing to create innovative and smart products and services to improve the quality and efficient of the Greek energy market. Electra Energy business activity aims to be aligned with three basic principes of the cooperatives enterprises (International Cooperatives Alliance): Fair and Easy Access to Common Goods, Energy Tranition in the Hands of Citizens and Fair Supply.
How have you managed to cope through this difficult financial time?
First steps are never easy and specially for a new enterprise. We also find obstacles in working with public authorities and speeding up licensing processes for the development of first projects that could bring us income. Out of the 9 founding members, 4 are unemployed, only one is part time employed in the cooperative and all the rest work on volunteer basis. However, from the beginning we all planned a two year grace period until we expect any substantial incomes that could cover at least some full time jobs within the organization. We currently have support from a German social investor, a lady aware of the Greek situation who liked our model and ambition and decided to cover some of the operational expensive until the cooperative can become self sustainable from it’s activities.
What advice would you have for would-be social enterpreneurs?
If there is anything I had to choose to say to them, (it would be to) work with people you like, have fun doing what you do, even if the idea is full of risks, always ask for help and advice but most importantly, don’t listen to all advice. Taking risks is a part of the activity and social entrepreneurship is full of risks and unknown paths. We may find that sometimes people tell us that what we are aiming to do is not possible, but it is, so remember to be open to advice but, always learn to trust your gut.
A special thanks to Ignacio for a very informative interview about Electra, providing us with a few links to find out more about commons and the International Co-operatives Alliance. Feel free to join the SEYN network as well if you are involved in the field of sustainable energy.