The project Retenergie developed in the region of Piedmont in 2007. A group of friends and activists from various ecology movements decided to initiate a project and jointly invest in a set of PV panels. At first they called this project simply Solare Collettivo, solar collective. The commercial PV project “adopt one kilowatt hour” kicked off to become an unexpected success story. The co-founder and organisation’s current president, Anna Maria Olivero, sees the trust between the original members as an important reason behind the good start. Via the internet and with the help of positive TV coverage, the number of supporters quickly expanded and soon included people from other parts of Italy.  From the outset, the idea of producing energy democratically met with very positive feedback.
Setting out, a number of fundamental issues needed to be discussed. For example, the group decided not to build PV installations on arable land so as not to compete with food production. Instead, they decided to install their panels only on roofs.
The business form also needed to change. With Solare Colletivo set up as a not-for-profit association, it was not possible to develop the business as planned. So the ecologic collective Proteo from the small town of Mondovi was won as a partner.
To finance the first 20 kW solar installation, they managed to raise 70,000 EUR from 40 people. Encouraged by the unexpectedly good start, they soon financed further PV installations. To take the burden of day-to-day business off the association, they then founded Retenergie as a subsidiary collective in 2008. Marco Mariano, a member of the association and former organic farmer, became the president. He explains how progress without external expertise is possible: “Because we were all new to the subject [of renewable energies] and we were conscious of this fact, we put ourselves into a situation where we had to learn. And then we learnt”,  The necessary supplementary expertise in difficult technical questions came in a timely fashion through new members. Retenergie therefore only needs three people working part-time. In the summer of 2013, Retenergie, originally founded by 13 idealists, had 600 members from various northern and central Italian provinces.
Retenergie’s business model
The business model rests on two different types of membership. This takes into account that not all members have the same financial capabilities. So-called consumption members pay a deposit of at least 50 EUR and can then buy green energy from the collective. Investment members also receive green energy, but make a deposit of ten shares costing in total 500 EUR. This money is used to build new installations and these investment members then receive a share of the profits. A further financing instrument takes the form of “ethical investments”,  loans that members can opt to grant to the collective, with a fixed two-percent interest rate over one or two years. All in all, the collective has raised 800,000 EUR this way. All members also have equal access to further services offered by the collective, such as advice on energy efficiency. As is usual for collectives, all members have the same say. Furthermore, Retenergie cooperates with local craftsmen who offer members a discount for refurbishments aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of buildings.
Retenergie as a green electricity provider
Italian legislation does not make it easy for Retenergie to sell the energy it produces to its members. Gestore dei Servizi Energetici, a publicly owned stock company, manages the renewable energy market. The company buys the renewable energy produced de-centrally at slightly subsidised rates and feeds it into the Italian grid. But if the members were to simply get their electricity over the standard grid they would have no financial benefits. To solve this problem, Retenergie collaborates with Trenta, a larger energy supplier. Trenta buys the energy produced by Retenergie and supplies green electricity to the members of the collective. Because this circumvents the normal energy market, Trenta can offer a twelve percent discount on the usual market price.
Decision-making and code of ethics
The complex business model does not mean that the collective renounces democratic and ecological principles. All members are invited to the half-yearly general assembly, the highest decision-making body. Otherwise members organise in regional groups, so-called nodi (knots) that act more or less autonomously. These nodi propose projects that the collective then may decide to develop. To ensure a permanent connection, each of the nine regional groups is represented on the board.
An ethical code defines the basis for all activities. It determines, for example, that collaboration is only possible with ethical or green banks, and for mulates the goals of greater energy efficiency, installing only small or medium-size installations and always checking on such installations’ ecological impact, which means not building on otherwise arable land.
Marco Mariano told us how some members stopped the board’s plans to build a wind farm in Apulia: “We were very enthusiastic when we presented this great opportunity to the general assembly. But after talking for only five minutes some hands were raised and some members said: Look, we don’t like this project because wind farms cause many problems. And so we were stopped.”
This shows the importance of a responsible board as well as an active member base for an ethical company. Currently a workgroup is establishing ecological criteria for wind farms similar to those already in place for Retenergie’s solar and hydro power business branches.
Moreover, it is a compulsory requirement to take into account all residents, whether or not they are members. When a project is planned for a particular village, town or municipality, the group first organises several meetings with residents. This way it aims to involve as many people as possible. According to Mariano, Retenergie’s ethical principles create the basis for the broad acceptance of projects among local residents. As he explains, Solare Colletivo works like a think tank, and Retenergie then implements the projects.
This division of labour enables the association to progress its other projects. These include the construction of small wind farms in rural Tanzania in East Africa and a sharing project for electric scooters in Italian cities.
 Interview with Anna Maria Olivero.
 Interview with Marco Mariano, president of Retenergie
 See the website of Retenergie: www.retenergie.it
 Interview with Marco Mariano.
 Interview with Anna Maria Olivero.
This article is presented in the Energy democracy in Europe, A survey and outlook by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in 2014.