08 April 2012

How to Start Your Own Power Company, Stop Coal and Nukes, and Transform Your City

2011 Goldman Prize winner Ursula Sladek discusses how she became an unwitting energy mogul -- and a global environmental hero

By Sven Eberlein | AlterNet |March 28, 2012
Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

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. Motivated by the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl in 1986, the schoolteacher and mother of five from the small town of Schönau (population 2,382) in Germany’s Black Forest region — along with her husband Michael and a group of concerned parents — unsuccessfully lobbied her regional power company to adopt conservation measures, to no avail. After over 10 years of citizen activism and two referendums, 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. With the Merkel government’s recent decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and a targeted switch to 100 percent renewables by 2050, the former rebels suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of a new energy era.

Sven Eberlein visited Schönau, where Sladek shared her town’s unlikely story, how it might be replicated by others, and her thoughts on German energy policy and the future of the green economy.

Sven Eberlein: The story of EWS starts with Chernobyl. Had you ever thought about energy before or did it come as a complete shock?

Ursula Sladek: Until Chernobyl neither my husband nor I had been politically or environmentally engaged at all. We were just ordinary people raising our children and pursuing our careers. In my case, of course, my career was raising children. You know, five little kids, that's quite a job, you don't need to do much else. [laughs]

Then Chernobyl happened, and it was just like a bomb had been dropped into our lives. My husband immediately realized the scale of it. Being a physician, he had obviously had more experience with radiation in its various applications than me. I remember thinking at first, "Oh my, those poor people over there," but I didn't think it would affect us.

Soon after, of course, it became clear how small the world is and how this was affecting us as well. All of a sudden we were wondering, "Should we let the kids play in the sandbox?" and, “What's okay for them to eat?" The federal government at the time said that perhaps it would be best to feed your children powdered milk instead of fresh milk. They said, "Don't eat salad, don't eat spinach." It was the same message you're hearing again right now from Japan.

My husband was a member of our church council at the time, and I said to him, "Michael, this is also the church's concern, because we're dealing with God's creation here, we can't just destroy it like that. The churches have to get involved in this, too." So we brought this to the church council, we wrote the bishop and got nice responses, but nothing happened.

Nothing happened on a federal level -- in fact, nothing really happened anywhere that would indicate a change in thinking. And that's when we realized, “Okay, we have to step up here, we the people have to bring about change on our own.”

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. 

SE: Anti-nuclear sentiment has pretty much become mainstream in Germany. While the Greens were still derided in the mid-'80s, their issues are now commonly accepted as important among the population. Is there a new kind of responsibility that comes with this shift?

US: Absolutely. And that's why something new and different has to happen now in Germany. Everyone has to realize that we all have to contribute. Everyone can conserve energy, and everyone can invest their money in the right places. And citizens are going to have to accept some more unpopular measures, like the construction of new power lines. Of course, nobody is happy about that. I wouldn't like it either if a power line was built right above my house — it's not healthy and my house will lose value, that's understandable. At the same time this encourages a new culture of democracy, and I'm excited about people in Germany having to be involved in these decisions from a much earlier point.

It's not like people are always against everything, it's more that they want to have a say in the decisions that are being made. For example, just a few weeks ago I had a talk with people in the state of Hesse who started an initiative against new power lines. What they say is not that they're against new power lines, they just don't like the way they're being built. They say, why not put them underground? Sure, it'll cost more, but that's the least we could do, right?

I think you have to include people in the process right from the beginning, let them be part of the decision making process, and I mean in an honest way and not just to placate them. If you present the problem to them and the different possible solutions, you can have an open discussion about which solution is the most widely accepted one. Of course, it may be more costly and affect energy prices, but people will have to accept that, too. But people aren't as dumb as the politicians and energy providers think they are.

SE: So there has to be a fundamental restructuring?

US: Exactly. I always say that I see this as a task or challenge that's as big as the industrial revolution. There's really going to be a complete transformation. Part of it will be all the intelligent networks. Everything is going to be interconnected and the world will look differently. It'll also mean that you can't just do laundry whenever you feel like it but only during high base-load times. You're going to have to live with that.

SE: What do you say to critics who say a nuclear phase out is only going to lead to more coal powered plants?

US: Well, that's a pretty common argument, and it's pretty clear with the phase-out in Germany that the government is thinking about bringing new coal-fired plants on line that may have previously already been written off, but that obviously can't be the solution. No, we have to develop and push for renewable sources of energy as fast as possible and with all our might. That has to be our goal. If we do that, then we won't need nuclear energy.

What many of those who claim that nuclear energy is clean don't take into consideration is that the risks and dangers aren’t just about the worst case scenario. It starts with the sourcing of the uranium. Then there's the issue of nuclear waste. Then the danger of terrorism and getting it in the wrong hands. It's not less dangerous than the climate catastrophe, it's like replacing one evil with another, and we really don't want either. That's the goal.

For the US or France, who've put their chips on nuclear energy and say it's clean energy, the problem is that nuclear and renewable energies aren’t technologically compatible either. That's because for renewable energy you need compatible energies that are quickly and flexibly deployable. For example, by now we have so much wind power in Germany that it goes into the base load when there's a lot of wind. This means that we have to shut off base load power plants because wind energy is given priority in Germany. Renewable energies all have feed-in priority, so base-load plants would actually have to be shut down. It so happens that most base load plants in Germany are nuclear plants, but the problem is you can't just quickly turn a nuclear plant on and off, on a daily use and need basis. You can shut it down quickly, that's true, just like during an emergency shut down, but to turn it back on takes days. Another thing is that if you keep switching a nuclear plant on and off all the time you significantly increase the risk of an accident.

So what we need in this transition phase until we get to 100% renewable energy are flexible gas power plants. Those are still fossil fuels, but they're the fossil fuels that produce the least amount of CO2, especially if used in cogeneration. That's what we need just for our transition period, but the final goal really is to have 100% renewable energy by 2050, at the latest. No coal, no gas, no nothing. And for that you need new energy storage, new power lines to transport the electricity from the places where it is generated, like the offshore wind parks in the North Sea, down south. All those things we'll still be investing a lot of brain power and money, that's for sure.

SE: And investing brain power and money means economic opportunity, right?

US: Oh, absolutely. Just right here, we’re expecting to have over 50 employees at EWS by the end of the year. That's a lot for a small town like Schönau, we're now the second largest income tax payer. Nationally, there are currently about 350,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector that have been created in the last few years. If you compare that to the nuclear industry that has about 30,000 jobs in Germany, the message is clear: more renewable energy creates more jobs. I'm absolutely convinced that this is going to be an economic boost for Germany because we're developing all kinds of new technologies. All the storage technologies that have to be developed, and of course that's also going to be export opportunities, meaning Germany is going to profit without end from the switch, I'm convinced of it.

SE: And if Germany can pull it off, others will  follow suit....

US: Yes, but whoever is first is positioned best.

SE: Did you share that with President Obama during the Goldman Environmental Prize reception at the White House?

US: Well, I gave him an English copy of our "100 good reasons against nuclear energy" brochure, but I'm not going to delude myself. It was obviously one of many meetings he has, but he listened to everyone, he said some very nice things, it was really great. He received "100 good reasons" with a bit of a skeptical look on his face. I told him what we were doing and how we are working toward rebuilding our energy sector towards renewable energy, and how we want to do it without any nuclear energy. I gave him a stern look, because I know he has a different opinion on that, and I told him I had "100 good reasons" translated into English just for him.

SE: Now that you're no longer an energy rebel but a leading figure in the industry, how do you like your new role as a leader?

US: It's definitely a good feeling. (Laughs) I was never really a rebel or contrarian but rather someone who wants to build something positive and constructive. Insofar this new role really suits me. No question about it. I just love to inspire and be able to create change together with others. There's a lot to do still, we won't run out of work any time soon.

Sven Eberlein is a freelance writer and journalist covering social and environmental issues.

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