Cooperative Energy revolution in the Black Forest
Why would a cooperative energy supplier from the Black Forest in Southern Germany sue the European Commission for the building of a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C? Our 2017 intern from Germany, Fridolin Dorwarth explains.
The founding of the cooperative energy supplier EWS Schönau was quite unique in Germany, and proof of what citizens can achieve when they work together for the same goal. After the accident at Chernobyl 1986, it was certain for some citizens at the small village of Schönau in the Black Forest that it was no longer business as usual. A handful of men and women concerned about the future security of power generation published a press advertisement to find more people who could help for the large project they hoped would offer an alternative to conventional coal and nuclear power plants.
This initiative later became famous in the whole of Germany, and beyond. They founded the cooperative energy supplier called EWS Schönau and are now supplying more than 160,000 households with clean energy, all completely without nuclear power. Furthermore, the company is exclusively owned by the 5,000 members of the cooperative, who are also profiting from the sustainable business. The members of the cooperative perceive themselves not just as shareholders and energy suppliers; they are also interested in pushing the transformation of the energy market with their own magazine and energy efficiency campaigns. They also offer courses on how to reduce energy consumption within the household.
The initiative from the Black Forest is one of the typical examples of the protest against nuclear power stations in Germany, ever since the incident in Chernobyl. After several worst-case scenarios in Japan, the German government has also shifted towards the requirements of the green movement – with legislation that by 2022 all nuclear power plants will be shut down.
A long and rocky road until the ownership of the grid
Despite the political achievements of movements such as EWS Schönau, their story was full of obstacles and disputes with the former grid operator. After the members of the initiative in Schönau had gained experience with their own plants, they wanted to take a step forward to buy the local grid. The group initiated a referendum where the 2,500 inhabitants of Schönau voted for EWS to operate the grid, in place of the old network operator. One of the founders of the initiative, Michael Sladek, remembers: “In our campaign we wanted to fight the cold money with emotions. Emotions belong to the heart. Our slogan was ‘say yes to Schönau’ and so the idea was to bake hearts with a ‘yes’ on it. On the election day, a heart lay on every breakfast table, so everyone knew the right answer in the referendum.” Actually it worked, and the majority voted against the extension of the contract with the monopolistic power supplier came into effect.
But there were still some more obstacles waiting, because the old grid operator initiated a second citizens’ decision, so another election battle took place and the former network operator fought with a vengeance and called the citizens’ initiative ‘beginners who want to operate a grid’. Meanwhile this dispute caused quite a stir in the whole of Germany and Schönau became a symbol for the anti-atomic-movement. Technicians, artists, philosophers and scientists started to support the citizens of Schönau, and several advertising agencies offered their help with free publicity in the form of a countrywide campaign to gather money and buy the grid from the previous operator.
Since 1997, the EWS has operated as a regular electricity supplier owned by members of the cooperative, and has achieved much in terms of renewable generation. For example; in 2016 they built a wind park with a yield of 45 million kWh per year, and regularly invest in residential projects all over Germany with a total power of 26,000 kW.
Cooperative Energy dealing with shifts in power systems
For EWS and similar community run projects in the UK, it is important that renewables stay competitive, which they already would be if the general expenses of conventional energy resources would have been taken into account in the past. Additionally, conventional energy suppliers such as EDF stayed profitable with the aid of subsidies for their portfolio of nuclear power plants, with the future costs shifted onto the society.
In 2016 the government of Austria sued the European Commission before the European Court of Justice and German and Austrian power suppliers sued the European Commission too, because of its decision to allow the governmental subsidy for Hinkley Point C. Moreover EWS filed a mass complaint which was supported by 171,500 citizens. In their point of view the subsidies distort competition and bear an expensive cost for a dangerous technology with about £30billion public money, because there would be a very high guaranteed inflation-linked tariff of 9.25p/kwh for 35 years for the nuclear power plant, which would be a dream for every operator of a solar power plant. In the end the complaint of the power suppliers failed though in September 2016, because the court in Luxembourg called the lawsuit inadmissible.
In fact, there is a strong subsidy for conventional energy sources in Germany as well. Political decisions determine the prices of the CO2-Certificates and the regulations on filtration of smoke of fossil power plants and last but not least the taxation of nuclear power reveals a preferential treatment. Interestingly the decommissioning and external costs are hardly included into the common cost-benefit calculations. Not only that, no insurance company wants to insure a nuclear power plant because of the overall costs of £5.2trillion for a worst-case scenario, moreover the costs of the final storage and the environmental follow-up costs of fossil power are hard to predict.
In a nutshell, photovoltaic power and other renewables aren’t only clean energy resources, but there are also safe, and simply cheaper than conventional energy resources as shown in a cost-benefit analysis for the national economy. Fortunately, we can see a lot of changes going on and community groups in the UK and in other countries take it into their own hands. The few citizens of Schönau achieved to buy the grid from the former operator and are now running a growing sustainable business. EWS Schönau and other groups can show, that the current circumstances are not carved in stone. However, at least it’s important that politics takes care for the right framework that energy revolution is going to be a benefit for everyone.
Fridolin Dorwarth, currently an intern at Joju, has studied political science at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria. He originally comes from Freiburg im Breisgau, a city which is famous for its efforts in the energy revolution and for its energy positive borough called ‘Vauban’, where houses produce more energy than they consume.
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The opinions of our guest writers represent their point of view and needn’t correspond with the opinion of Joju Solar.