“Citizen Energy”: Social Innovation, Public Policy, and the German Energy Transformation

Based on a lecture by Brett Fairbairn
Co-hosted by the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan, 2 November 2016


Wind turbine under construction

Like many countries, Canada is looking for green-energy alternatives in response to climate change. Germany presents an interesting case study that Canada could use. The “Energy Transformation” (Energiewende) in Germany has increased renewable energy to more than 30 percent of consumption to date and aims for 60 percent by 2050. The country has accomplished this thanks to innovative legislation coupled with the response of civil society and the business sector. A key mechanism was the creation of nearly nine hundred energy co-operatives in less than a decade.

Brett Fairbairn outlined the strategy in his lecture titled “Citizen Energy: Social Innovation, Public Policy, and the German Energy Transformation.” In partnership with Markus Hanisch from the Berlin Institute of Co-operative Studies, Brett examined the role of community-level social entrepreneurship and innovation in achieving green-energy targets. 

Following liberalization of the energy sector in the 1990s, Germany passed its key renewable energy law in 2000. The law provided generous feed-in tariffs as incentives for generating renewable energy. As a result, the country has seen increases every year in the proportion of energy coming from renewable sources — mainly photovoltaic, wind, and bio-energy. The co-operatives that have formed to provide this energy are found in every region of the country.


Germany’s energy transformation revolves around not simply a technological but also a social innovation — a new practice that benefits society and the environment while changing social relations. The state’s historic legislation was accompanied by the expectation that citizens would participate actively in the transformation of the system: “citizen energy” or Bürgerenergie. An important form of such participation is through co-operatives. Through membership in energy co-operatives, 165,000 citizens have acquired a direct stake in green energy. Co-op members have expanded their role from consumers to owners and producers, and forged new relationships with local economies. The energy co-operatives have helped to manage potential conflict at the community level by allowing for open membership, shared control in the one-member-one-vote structure, and local profit sharing.

As Canada looks for ways to cut carbon emissions, the debate continues about the effectiveness of various approaches. Some claim, for example, that a carbon tax will be detrimental to the economy without adequately addressing environmental issues. Saskatchewan’s attempt to implement carbon-capture technology has proven economically unviable in its current form: retrofitting the Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant with carbon-capture technology (CCS) cost $1.5 billion, and a December 2014 article in the MIT Technology Review noted that CCS at Boundary Dam has reduced the plant’s output by about 20 percent, increasing the cost of electricity to Saskatchewan homes.

Brett Fairbairn

Brett Fairbairn

Canada can learn from the German case, Fairbairn commented, but would have to tailor the system to accommodate its own values and institutions. Working within the local policy environment and addressing local norms are vital to driving this type of initiative forward. The German transformation was especially driven by a widespread desire to phase out nuclear power production. Canada might need a similar mobilising cause or issue.

Companies like SaskPower have already instituted arrangements such as the Small Power Producers Program, which allows people to generate a certain amount of electricity either to offset what they would normally purchase from SaskPower, or to sell directly to it. Legislation similar to Germany’s could help build on this type of idea by giving community groups locked-in, predictable, long-term contract conditions as a basis for organizing and planning. The co-operative model is well known and embraced in Canada, and organizations such as Co-operatives First in Saskatoon can provide support and resources to those interested in start-ups.

You can find a video of the lecture here.

Summary of presentation prepared with the assistance of Aasa Marshall
Student researcher, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives

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