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Electricity pylon

An energy giant's monopoly was broken as the town of Schonau set up its own grid

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How one town foiled energy giant ‘bribes’ over renewable grid

William McLennan and Tom Antebi

9th May, 2011

As Germany attempts to abandon nuclear power, one small town has successfully overcome industry intimidation and begun its own post-nuclear age

Earlier this year German chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to phase out nuclear power and placed a moratorium on nuclear power which has closed all pre-1980’s plants until early June.

Germany’s plans to exit nuclear power follow widespread protests by anti-nuclear campaigners and growing fears over radiation leaks at the Fukushima power station. A switch from nuclear to renewable energy represents a complete reversal by the German government, who last year had announced their intentions to extend the life of 17 nuclear plants for an average of 12 years.

Despite Merkel’s U-turn, which many saw as political opportunism, the anti-nuclear Green Party continue to gain electoral support and won a recent local election in the country’s south-west. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union lost control of Baden-Wuerttemberg state for the first time in 58 years, demonstrating the increasing opposition to nuclear power in Germany.

While the German government bows to growing concern among voters, one town in the picturesque Black Forest region has already moved into a post nuclear age in a revolutionary story of ‘civic uprising’ against energy monopolies.

Electricity rebels

An energy company, owned and managed by local townspeople, have been supplying the town of Schönau, in South Germany, with nuclear-free energy for more than 20 years.

Following the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and amid concerns of nuclear fallout across Europe, the citizens of Schönau decided to take matters into their own hands. Later that year, Parents for a Nuclear Free Future (PNFF), led by Ursula Sladek, who recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize, was established to campaign for renewable sources of energy, free from the dangers of radiation.

‘[After Chernobyl ] we thought now is the time when things are going to change. But the government and energy suppliers didn’t want any changes, so we realised it was going to be our job to do this. We had to do something now.’ Sladek told the Ecologist.

The civic action group, dubbed the ‘electricity rebels’ by German media, initially focused on energy efficiency but soon realised energy production was the key step in the process and established the cooperative company, Schönau Power Supply (EWS), to finance and install renewable energy initiatives.

The cooperative hoped to work with the existing energy supplier; feeding-in renewable energy to the electricity grid which could then be used by the whole town. However, the energy supplier (KWR) did not share their collaborative spirit and attempts to provide feed-in tariffs, that incentivised renewable energy, were fruitless.

Buying the grid


In 1990 KWR were looking to renew their 20-year contract to provide Schönau with electricity, but refused to acknowledge the townspeople’s demands for renewable energy and continually tried to impede the actions of EWS. Instead of submitting to this intimidation, Sladek says KWR’s heavy handed tactics provided the impetus for the people of Schönau to take control of their own energy supply, once and for all.

‘In the end, it was the constant obstacles and bullying by the energy supplier that led us to the idea of taking over the local grid,’ said Sladek.  ‘At that point we said to ourselves: no, we cannot accept the energy supplier...they are really abusing the power they have. So we came up with the idea to create a company that is owned by citizens and is guided by ecological objectives.’

However, things were not this simple and Sladek believes KWR attempted to 'bribe' the local government. The energy company offered to pay an extra 100,000 deutschmarks (€ 50,000) over the four years ‘which is an important amount for a small town like Schönau,’ said Sladek.

Not disheartened by KWR flexing its financial muscles, EWS set about fundraising and the 100,000 deutschmarks was quickly donated by the people of Schönau, who were keen to show the energy suppliers the ‘limits of their monopoly’.

Following further fundraising and a final check of the books, EWS decided they were ready to buy the contract to the power grid, which they valued at 4 million deutschmarks (€2 million). However, in a last ditched attempt to thwart the cooperative, KWR valued the grid at a staggering 8.7 million deutschmarks (€4.4 million), leaving a further 4.7 million to be raised.

‘The energy suppliers said if you can’t pay it, you can sue us court. Our objective was not to spend the rest of our lives suing the energy company in court. We wanted to change the energy landscape,’ said Sladek

It was this final belligerent act by KWR that led Sladek and the cooperative to take their campaign nationwide. Their plight received widespread coverage by the German media and the donations were soon rolling in - raising the first million in just six to eight weeks.

However, nationwide coverage provided EWS with more than just financial contributions and KWR, noticing the negative publicity they were receiving, began negotiations with Sladek. ‘The Managing Director of KWR rang me and said you are ruining our image.  I said to him: it’s not us, it is you yourself that’s ruining your image,’

Shortly after, in the midst of Sladek’s nationwide fundraising drive, KWR dropped the price to a more affordable 5.8 million deutschmarks.

Victory

On July 1st 1997 EWS were finally able to liberate Schönau’s energy supply and purchase the contract to the grid. Changes were immediately implemented and they began to subsidise renewable energy; paying up to six times more for solar energy feed-ins.

Two years later EWS began to sell coal and nuclear-free electricity to customers across the country and now, with the help of solar power generated by the townspeople of Schönau, supply electricity to more than 100,000 homes and businesses nationwide.

Today, with victory at home assured, EWS are busy spreading their message far and wide; using profits to finance renewable initiatives and help other communities establish co-operatives to take control of their own energy futures.

‘We keep buying new grids and continue working together with other local councils and communities. We have managed to convince other communities to create their own companies and buy their own grid,’ said Sladek.

 

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