Wanja Wallemyr runs Qvinnovindar, a cooperative in Sweden that contributes millions of kilowatt-hours in annual clean energy to the grid.
She says that women bring distinct strengths to the mission of decarbonizing electricity supply, and merit more policy support.
Esmeralda Colombo, a participant in the 2020-21 Financing and Deploying Clean Energy program, interviewed Wallemyr to illustrate how the challenge in her policy memo can pay off on the grid.
CEFF: Wanja, you are the leader of Qvinnovindar, one of the relatively few women-led renewable energy communities that own and invest in renewable energy in Europe. Can you say something more specific on Qvinnovindar?
Qvinnovindar is the first economic cooperative for women only with a focus on renewable energy in Sweden and has also started two subsidiary cooperatives with the same structure. It started in 2007 to invest in and own onshore wind power. We are not so big, but together we produce 3 million KWh every year and sell it to the grid. The wind turbine parks number from 2 to 5 turbines in each location, situated in between the big lakes in Southern Sweden. The three cooperatives cooperate but have different economies and members. The cooperatives own shares in different wind turbines and are part of each separate park’s management.
CEFF: How did the idea to establish Qvinnovindar in 2007 first emerge?
In 2007, I invited women to a “Day to Make Money” event, a type of event where we invite speakers to understand more about investment opportunities and share ideas. That day, the idea of investing in wind power emerged. But it was difficult to find projects. Projects were usually developed by men and owned by men. But one evening, I received a phone call to see if we were interested in a small participation in a wind farm, which was then under construction. We had to find 250,000 SEK within 14 days. We were 10 women and we put our own money. This is how the first project in Qvinnovindar started.
CEFF: What would you say about the growth into two additional cooperatives and the access to finance that you could obtain?
The second cooperative was meant for a bigger project, and we needed 5.5 mln SEK. Banks were surprised to see women requesting loans and it proved very difficult to obtain a loan. But we managed to, with some local banks. Also the third project, Qvinnovindar Sverige, received loans from local banks. Overall, counting all 3 projects, we are 80 women. We also own small participations in other projects. Thanks to the work Qvinnovindar has done, some members have found the opportunity to serve in other cooperatives that are not part of Qvinnovindar. I myself am chairwoman for a cooperative presiding over a wind turbine park that consists of 22 turbines, along with 5 men.
CEFF: What is your experience as a woman pioneering this idea of investing in and owning renewable energy projects with other women?
Even as a chairwoman, I know that, sometimes, if you want to do something, you still need to give the idea to men, and they shall bring it forward. Because women are not always taken seriously. And if women say they want to make money, also through some noble means such as renewable energy projects, they are considered selfish. If men want to make money, they are smart and it is seen as something natural. This is a fact. But I will always remember a woman from Central Africa, who came to me after I spoke at a conference in Istanbul and told me: “You gave me hope that we can also make money.” (We laugh) It is instances like these that make it clear that we have had a positive influence and our work has been appreciated.
CEFF: Has the role of women in the renewable energy industry changed over the years? I am thinking of Sweden as one of the role models in terms of gender equality around the world, but it may still be difficult for women to find a place in the renewable energy industry.
Over the years, there has been some change in some respects. More women are now working with renewable energy. But they are usually not owning it. This has not changed much from my own experience and observations. When I sometimes get calls from men, asking why we are not opening our cooperatives to them, I reply that women have different questions. If a cooperative is made of women only, women would have more courage to ask. If men are there as well, because of the lack of trust in women’s business capabilities that I mentioned before, the risk is that men will dominate. We do not exclude that in the future we will open the cooperatives to men, but that is not what we intend to do in the immediate future. I will also add that, as women, we sometimes ask questions that nobody is asking: we dare to question things, and this is important. There are still opportunities for mutual learning. For instance, E.ON, a very large energy company in Sweden, has come to us and asked how we started Qvinnovindar. They wanted to hear about our experience to start a solar cooperative.
CEFF: How have the revenues of your projects changed over time?
At the beginning, we had very good economies – then, it got worse. Politics does not understand how the market works. Energy certificates for green energy were initially a great incentive, but then they developed too fast. In our cooperatives, we have very good certificates, but today they are almost without monetary value. As for most wind power projects in Sweden, in the last years, we are breaking even in the budget: but we are not making profits. Either the energy certificates or energy price needs to change.
CEFF: What is Qvinnovindar’s outlook for the future? Are you looking for EU funds?
We are waiting for the Swedish Energy Strategy before making new investments. We accessed bank loans just at the beginning, but if good opportunities arise, we may ask for loans in the future. We worked in different EU projects, but they are overly complicated, and from a practical viewpoint too much of the EU fund money goes to consultants. People that can write the project and keep up with the large amount of reporting. Plus, you still need your own financing. With the same amount of money, we could do so much more for making things happen, for real things I mean, instead of consultants. We hope for new EU funds and rules.
CEFF: Are you in touch with other EU women-led renewable energy communities?
We are not. They sometimes visit us and we may collaborate on some specific projects through EU funds. As said, these funds are quite difficult to achieve and clumsy to manage.
CEFF: I can understand. And non-EU funds are offered through local and national rules, making collaborations potentially challenging. In terms of collaborations, have you had problems with local communities, specifically in terms of their acceptance of wind power turbines? Do you usually offer community benefits?
In our projects with Qvinnovindar, we have not had problems. But I know that some developers had problems after us. We do not usually offer community benefits. In a project we have in Q2, we are shareholders of 5 different wind turbines, along with other investors. The municipality owns half a turbine, Göteborgs Energi owns a whole turbine and then the local community owns the rest.
CEFF: I was wondering whether you also have side jobs.
I would say it is more appropriate to say that Qvinnovindar and my work in renewable energy is my side job. My family has a farm: the soil is very good, and we grow potatoes, oats, grass, and wood. I also sit in the municipality council and in a number of other associations’ boards. For instance, I am responsible for the farmers union for women.
CEFF: What is your relationship to nature and the projects you have helped develop so far?
Me and my family purchased the farm we live on now 20 years ago, and it is an expansion of our previous farm that we still own. I think that we cannot give up food production when the soil is so good. And I think we cannot give up land to mining and extraction, when we can produce renewable energy. Companies have been taking tests in the area. They usually look for gas or oil, and then they are very glad when they find uranium. Mining for uranium for nuclear power started in the 1970s. There is a mine not so far from where I live: but you look at it and realize how much land it is needed for that. And people cannot live in the surroundings. In Sweden, we have good rules for protecting nature and biodiversity. But you never know. A new government comes and suddenly all that is lost.
CEFF: Would you like to add some final thoughts?
You need to make opportunities happen, you cannot wait for them to be ready for you. And for all projects, you need to have good people around you so that you can actually build for the future. Look at me. I am good at something, but not at everything. I am a doer but not a paperperson. You need talented people around you, as we have had in Qvinnovindar. Qvinnovindar has opened the doors for other women in different ways. That is something I am very proud of.