(Editors note: This is part of a series of interviews and stories that will run over the next few weeks looking at Germany’s Energiewende, and the transition of Germany’s energy grid to one dominated by renewable energy. You can find them all in our Insight section).
One of the most misunderstood aspects of Germany’s energy transition is the assumption that this is top-down mandate to adopt green energy. Nothing could be further from the truth, and one key statistic underlines this point: the major electricity generators account for just 7 per cent of the renewable energy that now makes up nearly one quarter of the county’s electricity production. The rest has come from farmers, households, communities and small business.
There is a bunch of reasons why this is so. For many, it is their dislike of nuclear. For others, it’s the opportunity of maintaining a lifestyle, finding independence, or retaining ownership of a family farm. For many it is an environmental issue, for others it is an economic one.
When the price of livestock plunged after the outbreak of “mad cow” disease, the Reinbold family in the village of Freiamt, just north of Freiburg, were worried about losing their farm which had been in the family for generations.
So they turned to biogas to generate electricity and waste heat: They now grow crops of inedible corn, grass and rye and have two small turbines that have a combined capacity of 360kW. Waste heat is fed to the school and nearby homes, the liquid waste from the biomass goes to neighbouring farms. Another turbine will provide heat for the village pool and the hostels, which are popular with hikers.
“It’s more work in summer outside in the field,” says Inge Reinbold, of the need to tend crops rather than cattle. But less work in winter. And despite the large investment, she feels she has risk-proofed the family farm. “Now we have a fixed price for 10 years,” she says. They get 10c/kWh for their biogas electricity – and three solar arrays owned by her three sons gives them a further income.
Higher up the valley, we visit the Schneider family, which has gone even further, installing a heater that uses wood chips instead of oil, and hosting two community-owned wind turbines on their property (pictured below), which features 80 dairy cows and a much admired Schnapps production facility in the basement. (You can see a video here).
They, too, have around 100kW of solar in four arrays on the house and barn rooftops. The first was installed at a cost of €4,000/kW and got a feed-in-tariff of €0.49/kWh the most recent as installed at a cost of €1,000/w, and got a FiT of €0.32. The FiT is now around 15c.
(And it should be noted that when German farmers put solar on the rooftop they don’t muck around. Many of them have 30kW on the house and another 30kW on one or more barns if they have them. The Schneider household, Victorian planning authorities could note, is 400m from its turbine. The proximity may have made their schnapps somewhat more potent).
Now Freiamt, a collection of five small hamlets in the foothills of the Black Forest with a total population of 4,200, provides more than 200 per cent of its electricity needs, the locals claim. Five turbines, including the two on the Schneider property, account for ¾ of this, with the rest made up from two biogas plants, 251 solar rooftops, about 150 solar thermal collectors, wood-chip heaters and four run-of-river hydros, which are coming back into vogue after a century of neglect.
The sense of independence is ingrained into the mentality. Most of the farming families were attracted to the area 500 years ago when the Monastery at St Peter, just down the road, offered freehold land to farmers who settled into the area and independence from the Dutch overlords).
“Now you see farms starting to look at battery storage,” says Erhard Shulz, the founder of the locally based Innovation Academy, and my guide for the day. “Independence is very important. That is why the families came here 500 years ago, for independence from the Dutch. Now it is for independence from the nuclear and the fossil fuel companies. This is very important.”
Most other villages in the region are taking similar action to Freiamt.
In Forchheim, the Binder family has invested in a 1.7MW biogas plant using two old ship motors. The aim is to generate 25 per cent of the local gas requirements, which would make the local area independent of Russian gas, which is imported at great expense.
In Weisweil, a village of 2,100 people, solar is installed on nearly available rooftop. Thirty locals pitched in to put a 50kW solar system on the roof of the local school, which also introduced energy efficiency and replaced heating oil with wood chips. Even the chapel in the cemetery has a 22kW solar system on the roof, installed by the local bank which feeds 50 per cent of the earnings back into the community. The village boasts 700w of solar PV per habitant. (In Australia, it is around 125w per capita).
“You need communities like this,” Shulz says. “Someone has to be in front so that others can follow.” Other towns are looking at investing too.
The village of Kenzingen is considering 5 community owned turbines. The larger town of Ettlingenden and the surrounding district, with its population of 22,000, aims to be 100 per cent renewable for its electricity by 2030, and 50 per cent for its heating needs.
The goal for Etlingenden contrasts with that of the major local city of Freiburg, which is looking to achieve the same goal in 2050. “The centre of initiative is in the small villages,” Shulz says. “People using their own money to invest in hydro, biogass, solar and wind turbines. They don’t wait for the government and the utilities.”
Shulz, who was a student at the time of the anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s that served as a launched for the green energy movement, and later the Greens Party, is a part owner of six wind turbines, seven solar installations and two run of river hydro plants. The number of co-investors ranges from 10 to more than 500, depending on the installation.
This is typical of the country and one of the reasons why no party that got elected to parliament in the recent elections opposes the so called Energiewende, or energy transition. It is one of the driving forces of the policy. The major generators have been blindsided, to the point where the biggest of them, such as RWE, are considering abandoning their traditional business models and moving to a “value add” business that could assist the rising “pro-sumer” and a new market.
Finally, Shulz take me to the village of Wyhl, where the state government wanted to build the nuclear plant in the 1970s. Shulz takes me to a stone inlaid with a plaque at the site of Wyhl fight, about 50m from the banks of the Rhine river that separates Germany and France. The land had been cleared but was stopped by a protest of 50,000 people. (See some archive video here). It is now a nature reserve. The plaque reads, “We said no.”
Wyhl is now a “solar village”. Virtually every commercial rooftop has solar installed, as do many houses, and solar accounts for between 40 and 50 per cent of its electricity needs. All the solar is owned by the community. “We have gone from nuclear to solar,” Shulz says. “Now we say no to fossil fuels.”
See also out story Should Australian communities buy back their grids, which traces the history of Schönau, which was the first village to do so in Germany, and our interview with the Australian-born mayor of Green City Freiburg, How the crazy green energy citizens became mainstream in Germany.
(Thanks to Craig Morris, a Freiburg-based journalist who writes the Energy Transition blog (EnergyTransition.de), for allowing us to share some of his videos. More will be featured in our other stories. You can see all his episodes here).
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.