Short-travel, sustainable products are gaining traction with consumers everywhere. Now the Dutch startup WeSpark is building up an ecosystem for locally produced and consumed electric power. The concept is catching on, with economic and ecological benefits for both customers and communities.
Jurrien Baretta is managing director of WeSpark, but she gives the impression that the role is more of a practical necessity. “WeSpark is a cooperative, so our customers are both members and owners. All the benefits we generate flow back to the members.” Located in the city of Zaandam in the Netherlands, WeSpark deals only in renewable energy. “Essentially we are sharing energy from the sun and the wind,” Baretta says.
Whether customers are pure consumers or generate their own energy, WeSpark can connect them to a green grid. They have teamed up with a small high-tech company to organize trading on the Amsterdam Power Exchange market (APX), where prices fluctuate every 15 minutes depending on supply and demand. “We forward these prices to our members,” Baretta relates. “For a small fee to cover our costs, they have continuous access to actual market prices.”
Transparent pricing allows WeSpark customers to hedge against future prices based on known consumption patterns. “Static pricing has to compensate for fluctuations, but we can use them to our customers’ advantage,” Baretta says. She adds that the model also encourages behavioral adjustments, as customers can plan to use more energy when prices are lower, and reduce consumption when demand is higher.
Taking less, giving back more
The money WeSpark makes is invested in new infrastructure that benefits members. “We are investing in smaller windmills, due to some resistance against the giant turbines. Efficiency is lower, but there is a higher degree of acceptance,” Baretta says. WeSpark also sells surplus energy from solar panels that continue to collect energy when their owners are away, and not able to use the energy they produce.
WeSpark plans to introduce energy storage, and they are looking into local green hydrogen production. “We hope to generate enough of a budget to expand into new technologies that will optimize the concept even further,” Baretta says.
The WeSpark marketing concept is as grass-roots as their business model, engaging local sports clubs to spread the word among their members. “Sports clubs are very popular in the Netherlands. Most people belong to one kind of club or another. We get clubs to do marketing by awarding them 10 euros for each new WeSpark membership. It’s basically word-of-mouth, and it benefits both the clubs and WeSpark,” Baretta says.
“We are only getting started,” she emphasizes. “We have some business customers, but no households yet. We expect official approval for supplying private homes soon, and our goal is 10,000 customers in the near future.”
Operations with a larger footprint are also potential customers: “For example, the Port of Amsterdam could use WeSpark to help supply shore power to ships, especially since there are already some windmills in that area that could be connected to our initiative. And when the port doesn't need the produced power, it can be delivered back to the grid and serve the households in the vicinity.”
A model for the future
The practical premise of WeSpark is to keep energy as close as possible to where it is generated, or “use it where you produce it,” as Baretta puts it. “This concept reduces the burden on distribution grids, but power loss in transportation is also reduced, so less energy goes to waste.”
“Our ultimate goal is to combine commercial and environmental sustainability. Right now, we are just keeping our heads above water, but with our concept, profits that are now going to the big electric companies can be reinvested in sustainable power,” Baretta says.
Does Baretta see a broader market for the WeSpark model? “The model is mobile. All it takes is for people to join together as a community, and bring the benefits back to group,” she says. “But it still provides individual options. You can use the power you generate, or you can sell it. Either way it keeps cost down and makes power generation and consumption more affordable, and more sustainable.”