= EWS, one of Europe’s largest cooperatively owned green energy companies
"1986, subsequent to the worst case scenario in Chernobyl, a parents’ Initiative was launched against atomic energy in the small Black Forest town of Schönau. As the operators of the local grid attempted to hinder these citizens’ activities, be they attempts to save energy or demands for more environmental ly friendly power generators, the idea of buying the Schönau grid, and thus determining the future of its general framework, came into being. The antiatom-initiative wouldn’t let itself be put off by two referenda, nor by overpriced demands for millions, and so, in 1997, a citizens’ initiative took over the grid and its community’s supply. In this it is unique in Germany. The press wrote lovingly of the “‘Schönau electricity rebels having won a David against Goliath battle”, and the victory of the Schönau residents against the atomic lobby was enthusiastically celebrated throughout Germany. When the German electricity market was deregulated in 1998, the EWS was quick to seize the opportunity and henceforth supply all its Schönau customers exclusively with electricity produced with renewable energy and cogeneration: Schönau was free of atomic and coal electricity. The EWS introduced generous subsidised plans for renewable energy and cogeneration, and thus the proportion of environmentally friendly energy creation in Schönau continuously increases: EWS has the largest percentage of solar electricity of any grid suppl ier in Germany (by now approx. 6 per cent of total electric ity requirements within the grid of EWS Schönau are suppl ied by solar power) and it also has the highest concentration of small cogeneration units.
One year later, in 1999, when the electric ity market was opened up to householders, the EWS was able to supply customers throughout Germany with clean electricity. The EWS business philosophy is based on ecological guiding princ iples that reject atomic and coal electriity, subsidise renewable energy, and posit the reduct ion of electric ity consumption whilst also supporting the climate-compatible use of cogeneration. Since Chernobyl, this ecological concept has been the basis of Schönau’s activities and is being consistently and coherently applied by the Schönau power suppl ier EWS. When it comes to the supply of sustainable and climate-friendly energy, matters of conservation and efficiency are of ever increasing importance. The faster the reduction in energy consumption and demand levels in Western Europe, the sooner it will become possible to switch to renewable energy sources. Cogeneration (also known as combined heat and power, CHP) is assigned particular significance in the question of energy efficiency and the scenarios envisaged for sustainable power supply – therefore the EWS employs a small amount of gas-driven, highly efficient cogeneration units in its electricity mixture (0,4% cogeneration, 99,6% renewables in 2010).
Approximately 130.000 electricity users (in around 750 grid areas) across Germany and 8300 gas users in Southern Germany have already chosen the EWS. This is not only due to the consistent and coherently ecological approach within the local grid and the c lean electricity mixture, but also thanks to the advancement of new, ecological electric ity production that it practices. Almost the entire amount of electricity sold, created by hydraulic power, was in 2011 produced by new (i.e. six years-old or newer) equipment. The producers, furthermore, invest in new equipment or the upgrading of existing equipment. In addition to this, the EWS subsidises new, ecological, electricity product ion equipment among its customers. Approximately 1950 units have been created in this manner - solar units, cogeneration units, biogas and hydraulic power units. Decentralised product ion of electricity creates jobs and growth in a future-friendly economy, and is the basis of sustainable energy production.
The EWS is more than just an electricity supplier and its goals are broader. The EWS wants to encourage independence of action, the wil to change and create. The success of the EWS can therefore only be partially measured by the amount of its customers and the units it has subsidised. What cannot be measured or put into figures is the great motivational and charismatic power that Schönau exudes and which triggers much act ivity. Schönau’s electricity seminars, for example, are attended by people who share its goals and plan to join together and execute common projects. In this manner, a perpetually growing network of ecologically sound initiatives is created and goes into action. Furthermore, the EWS practices what pol it ic ians preach and demand; the headquarters of EWS features a solar power unit. “Electriity-creating heating”, a cogeneration unit, has been installed in the office block, and the listed building on the company premises is being insulated by specialists."
"Ursula Sladek, a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, is the co-founder and president of EWS, one of Europe’s largest cooperatively owned green energy companies. ... Sladek and her small-town energy rebels were able to take over the local grid and start a community-run power co-op. With total sales reaching 67 million euro in 2009, EWS has long outgrown its local market. While Schönau boasts three times the national average in photovoltaics, 20 cogeneration units, two hydroelectric plants, and a windmill, EWS today provides power from over 1,800 solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and cogeneration facilities to 115,000 homes and businesses throughout Germany and Europe.
SE: So how did you first organize? Was it among friends?
US: No, we got together with a group of people that didn't necessarily know each other before. One of them had put an ad in the paper a few weeks after Chernobyl that said if you're concerned about what's happening and feel like you need to do something about it, to please get in touch with him. So I did, and that's how a small group formed.
Like so many other groups, we first called ourselves "Parents Against Nuclear Power," but we changed that relatively soon, because one of our members said that he didn't like being "against" something, he wanted to be "for" something. So we called ourselves "Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future," which of course physically speaking is impossible, but everyone knows what it means.
SE: You got a lot of resistance, especially once you went head to head with KWR, the regional power company that ran the Schönau grid at the time. When did you realize that conserving energy wasn’t on their agenda?
US: Well, the resistance was there long before. We were so naive. We said, come on, let’s do this. After all, we're just advocating for reasonable things here. How can you not support this? We went to KWR when we were first starting out with our energy saving activities and we asked them whether they'd like to join, and wouldn't it be nice to do this together? We told them we didn't want a lot from them, perhaps a few old electric meters we could loan out to some customers, and they said: "Conserve energy? Have you lost your mind? We want to sell energy, not save it! Actually, you are bad for business, you should be glad we’re not coming after you.”
We walked home completely deflated, thinking, what on earth is going on here?
SE: And they had the monopoly?
US: Yes, back then it was still monopoly time here, you couldn't just bypass them. [The EU deregulated its electricity markets in 1998.] When the issue was first discussed in 1990, we weren't even talking about challenging their license, we just wanted to have some regulations. For example, energy-saving tariffs, meaning rates based on consumption, with low or no basic rates, and a more sensible treatment of cogeneration units. Things like that.
KWR had put out a bait, guaranteeing the city an additional concession of 100,000 Deutschmarks (50,000 euro) to extend their license early. These licenses usually run for 20 years, and they wanted to extend it for four years before it expired, because they knew something was brewing in Schönau. Our city council person went back to KWR and presented our suggestions, and they thought he was kidding. They said, “look, this is a model contract, all communities get the same one, we're not going to change a thing, no comma, no period, nothing. You either sign this and get your 100.000 DM, or you don't sign it, we'll keep our 100,000 DM and you'll be signing it anyway in four years and get nothing because we're the only electricity game in town.”
SE: It was almost like a bribe.
US: Absolutely. It was such an arrogant attitude, also toward the Schönau town council, that we thought, no, we're not going to let them get away with this. So we sat together, drank a bunch of red wine, and made a plan. The plan had two parts, because it was clear that the town wanted to have the 100,000 DM while also wanting to have some of these environmental provisions written into the license. So we said, it’s very simple, the town is going to get the money from us. We'll just ask 250 people to donate 100 DM for each of the next four years, and that'll take care of it. And it was really extremely easy. We found 250 people within six weeks, because they said: "100 marks per year, that's very cheap entertainment."
The second half of the plan was to build a people-owned power company, so we could put in our own bid for the new license once the old one expired. We were still naive, because we went to the mayor's office thinking he'd be really happy about our great plan. And the mayor thought we had all gone crazy. How on earth are these citizens going to supply this town with energy? Running an energy company is complicated, you must surely have done this for a hundred years to be able to do this, right? However, at this point we had already garnered a lot of media interest, because, of course, it was a great story: Residents of a small community give their town 100,000 DM to not sign a contract!
Reluctantly the mayor agreed to let us conduct a feasibility study to show how we were going to do this, and we did. At this point we had already consulted with a lot of energy experts all over Germany. We conducted the study, learned a lot while doing it, and then proudly presented it to the mayor, who gave it to the local examiners office. And they said, “Dear mayor, you should accept your citizens' offer. What they've done here is great and you really can't lose. You get your 100,000 DM and choose between two providers.”
However, they still didn't want to do it, and there was a town council decision against us. In Germany there's the possibility of having a referendum against a town council decision, and that's what we did.
SE: And that’s how the first referendum came about?
US: Exactly. That's when we learned a lot about political work and with it lost a little bit of our naiveté, even though we still approached a lot of other things very naively. Of course, you have to consider the risks in things, but if you always just play it safe right from the beginning, you're never going to get anywhere, because that's when your mother's voice appears in your head and says, "you can't do that. It's much too expensive. Be careful, it's too dangerous." So you have to pretend as if you have already overcome all obstacles and forget everything you've been taught.
SE: The campaign turned out to be a tough battle....
US: Well, the first referendum was still much more benign, also because KWR didn't really take us seriously. They thought, gee, these crazy people, nobody is going to vote for their nonsense, everyone can see that they're totally deluded. So they approached the whole thing rather casually, whereas in the run-up to the second referendum they knew what was at stake and that now it was do or die. So obviously they upped the ante quite a bit. The second referendum was really really tough. That was a time of my life I'd rather not relive, to be honest. The worst part about it were all the personal attacks, and what's really difficult is not to lash out in the same way.
SE: Winning the second referendum meant you were granted the license to operate the grid. But it came at a high price.
US: Yes, there was the issue about the cost of the grid. We had calculated it at 4 million DM, and that was actually quite generous, because we didn’t want it to look like we were trying to make a profit from this. We knew 4 million was the upper limit, and KWR demanded 8.7 million. It was clear that we wouldn't be able to do this through donations, and so they tried to kill our whole project that way. If you want to be an energy provider you have to have a permit from the department of finance, and you have to make your case to them that you can maintain uninterrupted service and do it cheaply. And cheaply in this case means it can't cost more than under the previous provider. If we'd had to pay 8.7 million DM there would have been no way for us to do this economically. We would have had to double the prices, so it was obvious that this was their leverage to prevent it all from happening.
So then we had to think about what to do next. KWR said to us, “Why don't you sue us?”, but we knew that suing them would be a long, drawn out affair. Another community had just had a 17-year trial with their energy provider, and we said, “no, we're not going to do that.” As we were thinking about other ways to go about this, we had this idea: what if we pay them everything, and then take our time suing them afterwards? That was feasible, because especially in the area of monopolies these are legitimate options. Normally, you can't do that, you can't just buy someone's house and then sue him afterwards, but because I don't have a choice when someone has a monopoly and I have to buy this one thing, that's why this option was available.
SE: So did you get your money back?
US: Yes, we got it back, in 2005. It turned out that the grid was worth only 3.5 million DM, so not even the 4.3 million we had calculated, and they had to pay us back everything we overpaid, with interest.
SE: How did you come up with the money to cover the overpriced cost of the grid?
US: That's what the Störfall campaign was all about. It was such an amazing experience, I can't really describe it in words. It started with us sending letters to the 50 largest ad agencies in Germany, asking if they would be interested in coming up with a campaign for us. It had to be fully professional, we're talking about collecting millions of DM in donations, that's no small change. The last sentence in our query was, "it has to be pro bono, because we have no money."
I have to admit, I really didn't think anyone was going to respond, but 16 of them did, saying what a great thing we had going, and they’d love to help. After evaluating the agencies we picked one, and they came up with "Ich bin ein Störfall" ["I’m a nuisance."]. It was quite provocative, all of a sudden people are becoming a nuisance for the nuclear industry.
From entrepreneurs who sent us 200,000 DM to school children who donated their pocket money, it was a great success. Old folks who asked for money in lieu of birthday presents to support the Schönauers. Ever since then I’ve believed that anything is possible.
SE: Is there something about Schönau specifically that you think made it work? Was there more of a pioneer spirit than in other places or could it have been pulled off anywhere?
US: I think this could have been done anywhere. Schönau is really just a very ordinary town. We have a conservative majority. When you look at election results, this is not exactly a Green or progressive stronghold, but a normal mix, if anything more conservative than the national average. I find it incredible what the citizens of Schönau did in those referendums, that was quite something, but I still think it would have been possible anywhere else.
I really believe in the possibility of change if a few people get together with a common cause. And then others will just join in. I see this all over now, just last Monday I was in a town where a cooperative has formed to take over the grid. They want to finance new renewable energy providers in their town. Last night we were in another town 100km down the road and they want to do the same. So there's a lot of activity everywhere.
SE: What's the most important message you have for others, both in Germany and in the US, who want to do what you've done and start their own energy cooperative?
US: Well, I don't know the US that well, but I think you have to reach people through enthusiasm and excitability. Of course, you've got to find those people you can work with. You don't need to try to convince everybody at once. We weren't able to do that in Schönau either. All we needed was 52%. We went into it very strategically and tried to find those who were persuadable. The ones that were rigidly opposed we just left alone, all the effort is too exhausting. Look for the ones you feel you have a chance to convince. That's the kind of people you can move forward with. However, it's really important to meet people where they're at, talking down to anybody is really the worst thing you can do.
Another thing is to focus on small projects that people can go to and see with their own eyes, where someone can tell them how they did it and how much it cost. There's nothing more gratifying than to have a tangible success. You know, we've been working on that grand vision of shutting down nuclear power for 25 years and we haven't shut down a single nuclear plant. But we did a number of other things were we could say we've accomplished something. And then it's important to honor and celebrate your successes, so a community can be built within which you can do these things." (http://www.alternet.org/environment/154743/how_to_start_your_own_power_company,_stop_coal_and_nukes,_and_transform_your_city)