The Economy in Germany

Rebel energy from the Black Forest

A town of 2,500 inhabitants provides customers around Germany with clean, ecologically friendly electricity  Photo: © EWS SchönauA town of 2,500 inhabitants provides customers around Germany with clean, ecologically friendly electricity  Photo: © EWS SchönauIn one German town, committed citizens are winning the battle against powerful energy companies. Their “Rebellenstrom” (Rebel Electricity) is generated exclusively from renewable resources, but that is only part of their overall effort to bring about a green restructuring of the power supply market.

Schönau is an idyllic town in the Black Forest. They have a local museum, a golf course, and a public outdoor pool with mini golf and a 3-m diving platform. The current national football (soccer) team trainer, Jogi Löw, began his career at the municipal sports club here. It’s a typical small town: clean, pleasant and normal. And it is supposedly where a revolution is taking place? For more than 20 years now? Well, yes. The people of Schönau are indeed revolutionizing the German energy market. From their town of 2,500 inhabitants they have managed to win over 80,000 customers around Germany with clean, ecologically friendly electricity, without nuclear power and with very little CO2 emissions.

Citizens with energy

It all started in 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. “All of a sudden we didn’t know anymore what we could feed our children,” recalls Ursula Sladek in an interview with Stern magazine regarding the early days of the energy revolt. “But it was clear to us that if we wanted to free ourselves from nuclear power we were going to have to do it ourselves. The result was a movement in Schönau that initially organized energy saving contests.”

“If we wanted to free ourselves from nuclear power we were going to have to do it ourselves.”  Photo: © EWS SchönauAt the time, Ms. Sladek was a primary school teacher who was leading the new citizens’ group with her husband Michael. Four years later, when the contest for the lowest electricity bill turned into a battle for the city grid, the Sladeks knew their time had come. The regional energy monopoly, KWR, tried to force the town into a new licensing agreement, offering DM 100,000 for a quick signature on the deal. But there were no environmental provisions included in the arrangement so, in order to keep the city from signing the contract, the citizens decided to raise the money themselves.

Within just a few weeks the people of Schönau had found enough donors. “A lot of folks were just enjoying showing a monopoly its limits,” explains the current director of the city electricity works that was founded several years later. The DM 100,000 of course came nowhere near buying the entire network. That ultimately cost DM 5.8 million, and the process of raising it seems nearly a miracle now. Supporters popped up all over Germany, advertising agencies put together campaigns for free and the ethically-ecologically friendly GLS Bank even created their own fund for the cause. Within a matter of months millions of Marks were flowing into the Schönau coffers.

Solid business

In the end, it still took years of legal battling before Schönau was able to actually buy the grid from KWR. In 1999, however, they – 650 members of the cooperative who own the company – finally formed the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau GbR (EWS). Among them are many citizens of Schönau, but not everyone is involved just for the ecological element. It’s also been a good business for the associates of EWS: The company generated € 38 million in turnover in 2008. According to their own statements, EWS distributes roughly half of the profits among the investors while the other half is put back into the company. “Our primary goal is not to amass money but to serve the environment,” points out Ursula Sladek regarding the company philosophy. “Ecology is important but we count every penny.”

Standing on one of the rolling hills around the little town one looks down on a sea of shiny solar panels. Is that where the Schönau miracle is made? Well, just a fraction of it. The much larger share comes of course from waterpower, windmills and inconspicuous combined heat and power generation plants. They are not just located in Schönau either. EWS promotes new, ecological power generation plants with its so-called Sonnencents (Sun Cents). Included in the rates that EWS customers pay, these cents have thus far helped finance an impressive 1,450 new plants all around Germany, on windy fields, sundrenched rooftops or in basements in the form of washing machine-sized heating aggregates.

A long way to go

Not everyone is involved just for the ecological element  Photo: © EWS SchönauSchönau is not just a David fighting against the legions of energy Goliaths. Schönau is a concept. It promotes transformation in our energy policy, a halt in climate change, and the elimination of nuclear power from our future – and those are not just topics for big politics. The more saturated the network of decentralized production plants and green electricity customers, the less dependent on nuclear and coal energy the community becomes. And that is precisely the nightmare that big energy wants to avoid. If small- or mid-size towns all over the place get the same idea of generating their own clean electricity, who is going to buy the more controversial nuclear and coal power?

It’s not that far yet, of course, but the inquiries are on the rise at the Schönau Town Hall. And because only good stories seem to come from there, more and more communities are switching over to green alternatives: Mainhardt, Wüstenrot, Müllheim, Staufen and Titisee-Neustadt, to name a few, are like little Schönaus sprouting up around Germany. Still, the green power idyll is a long way off. In 2008 just 600,000 households got their electricity from true green power. But every day at least 50 bold new customers join forces with Rebel Electricity from the Black Forest.

Lars Neuenfeld
lives and works as a journalist in Chemnitz.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2009

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