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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A German Town Takes Charge of their Energy Needs

Air Date: Week of

Michael Lawton visits a small town in Germany that fought for the right to produce its own energy. Several residents of Shoenau built small hydropower and cogeneration plants in an attempt to get away from nuclear power as an energy source. When a utility company tried to outmaneuver the townsfolk for control of Shoenau's power, the energy entrepreneurs protested — and won.


CURWOOD: Germany harbors a strong anti-nuclear power sentiment. And recently the movement has taken on a whole new shape in a small town in the country's Black Forest region. Rather than marching and protesting, residents of the town of Schoenau are attempting to take over their town's electric utility and move it away from heavy reliance on nuclear power, to investment in what they say are safer and more efficient and renewable resources. As Michael Lawton reports from Schoenau, the town could become a model for others.

(Church bells, a car engine revving)

LAWTON: Even on a rainy day, Schoenau is a picturesque little town nestling in the hills of the Black Forest. It's not the sort of place which you'd expect to be the center of innovation. It's two-and-a-half thousand inhabitants are conservative both politically and socially. Since the area's main industry, spinning and weaving, died out, the town has become mainly a tourist resort. But I'm not here to look at Schoenau's surprisingly large church, or the attractive half-timbered houses. My appointment is down in a cellar.

(Running generator)

LAWTON: This gentle hum is the sound of the future in Schoenau; the town's first cogeneration plant is operating in the cellar of a newly-built house.

KIEFER: (Speaks in German)

LAWTON: This plant, says Wolfgang Kiefer, who installed it, is powered by natural gas. And it provides most of the heat for the building, as well as 12 kilowatts per hour for the regional electricity network. Because such plants produce both heat and power, they are far more efficient than a normal power station which just pumps its waste heat into the atmosphere.

KIEFER: (Speaks in German)

LAWTON: Kiefer and others in Schoenau hope that this plant will be the first of many, and the foundation for an experiment in environmental democracy, with Schoenau able to set its own energy policy. Their short-term goal is to take over the town's electricity distribution network, but their long-term goal is to get rid of nuclear power. That's an ambitious project, but they've come a long way since they started to be politically active after the Chernobyl disaster. Back then, in 1986, many Schoenau parents became concerned when they found out that their children had been playing outdoors on that sunny day when the plume of pollution reached Germany. The government had failed to issue any warnings. Michel Sladek is a local doctor and independent town councilor.

M. SLADEK: (Speaks in German)
TRANSLATOR: At the start we thought, without any doubt, the people in power will make it so that we stop nuclear power as quickly as possible. It was only when we saw that they weren't doing anything that we saw we'd have to do it ourselves, and that's when things started.

LAWTON: So Michel Sladek and his wife Ursula helped found Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. They held lectures about the dangers of nuclear power and supported a hospital near Chernobyl. But, as Ursula Sladek says, they also decided to take more concrete steps.

U. SLADEK: We also thought about saving energy, and we made energy saving competition. We do that now, since 7 years. And I think it's very successful here.

LAWTON: But the anti-nuclear parents soon realized that you couldn't go on saving energy forever; you'd always need some electricity. But you could try to produce it as ecologically as possible. So, 31 Schoenau energy activists set up a company to fund small-scale environmentally-sound power stations: hydroelectric generators and cogeneration plants in private houses and public buildings in and around Schoenau. They hoped that their example would lead to many more such power stations being built, but they repeatedly came up against the utility company, which refused to pay a commercial price for the electricity they produced. Michel Sladek and his supporters on the town council tried to get the utility company to change its pricing policy.

SLADEK: (Speaks in German)
TRANSLATOR: After months of negotiation, we had no success. And only after we'd seen that this was impossible, we said well, if the current supplier won't do it, then we'll have to get the electricity supply network into our own hands, so that we can build up an ecologically-sound network which can achieve our aims for the environment and for the future.

LAWTON: And that meant taking on the regional utility company whose contract with the town to supply it with electricity comes up for renewal at the end of this year. the activists began planning to put in a bid to take over the service. But the company tried to out maneuver the environmentalists by offering a much better deal if the town would renew the contract early. The council felt that the utility company's bid was an offer they couldn't resist, and they voted to accept it. Helmut Pfefferle is one of the town councilors who voted for the offer.

PFEFFERLE: (Speaks in German)

LAWTON: The utility company is doing a good job, he says, and their financial offer was extremely advantageous to the town. Sixty percent of their power is hydroelectric, so it's already environmentally friendly. If we don't have any problems, he says, why change? But those arguments don't convince the environmentalists. They point out that the other 40% of the town's electricity comes from nuclear power. So, immediately after the council vote, they called a referendum to overturn it.

(People singing around a piano, to the tune of the Beatles song "Lady Madonna")

LAWTON: The campaign to win the referendum was a lively affair. The activists even had a cabaret group called The Watt Killers performing in front of the town hall. According to the current mayor, who's remaining neutral, the issue split the town.

SCHOENAU MAYOR: (Speaks in German)
TRANSLATOR: It was a very passionate affair. The different opinions even divided families. It wasn't so easy. In public meetings people went as far as to accuse others of being bribed by the utility company. It got very personal and emotional.

LAWTON: Seventy-five percent of the town's voters turned out on voting day. The result made national headlines. The rebels won handsomely, and the council was forced to withdraw its acceptance of the utility company's offer. But now comes the real challenge: the activists have to develop a viable alternative to the utility company, so that they can actually win the contract at the end of this year. The signs seem to point in their favor. They've earned the respect of the people of the town, as a local restaurant owner told me.

RESTAURANT OWNER: (Speaks in German)
TRANSLATOR: He says he wasn't sure about them when they started but now they've got good reliable people. Business people. And even the housewives in the group, he says, they really know what they're talking about. Yes, you have to take your hat off to them.

LAWTON: The Schoenauers, though, are already looking forward to new projects such as their scheme to turn the town's old weaving mill into an ecological industrial park. The Schoenauer Energy Project is being watched with interest in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Other utility companies are waiting to see if decentralized electricity production will prove workable, and other communities are wondering if they couldn't take over their own network, too. If the Schoenauers pull it off, it could be a step on the way to a new democratization of energy. For Living on Earth, I'm Michael Lawton in Schoenau.



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