Power to the People

Eva Stegen at IPK 2Well, I’m just old enough to have used that expression more than once in the ancient days of protesting the Vietnam War.  These days “power to the people” is more about communities taking responsibility for the electricity that flows to their homes, businesses, and institutions.

I had the pleasure last week of helping to host two articulate women who are playing key roles in the exciting German “Energy Transition” – the Energiewende.  The Institute for Public Knowledge and the Center for Global Affairs, where I teach, hosted Rebecca Bertram of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Dr. Eva Stegen of Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS), a pioneering renewable energy cooperative.  (That’s Dr. Stegen pictured above.)

Ms. Bertram set up the discussion with an overview of the Energiewende.  The transition in Germany is driven by a number of factors:

  • For one, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 was a real trauma.  The country shifted and set a course to eventually phase out its nuclear power.  Long before Fukushima, the Germans were determined to denuclearize their energy.
  • The European Union embraced the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and eventually institutionalized their requirements for their member nations to reduce greenhouse gases.  Germany has been a leader in this all along.
  • Germans have enthusiastically supported renewable energy, with over half of the country’s renewable power coming from private individuals, farmers and homeowners with PV on their roofs, for instance.
  • Proliferating energy cooperatives:  66 in 2001 and about 900 today.
  • Two thirds of Germans say they like living near renewable energy facilities.  (Only 4% say they like living near nuclear power plants.)
  • Jobs:  As of 2011, there were 150,000 jobs in coal mining and other conventional sub-sectors, but nearly 375,000 in renewables.

What’s the plan?  This slide from Bertram’s presentation shows the path.  (For more, see the Böll Foundation website on the Energiewende.)

energiewende - BollEva Stegen then recounted the exciting story of how her small community in the Black Forest came to reject nuclear and fossil fuel power, bought the grid from the utility, and started to produce green energy.  They have expanded their reach from 1997 when they opened for business with a handful of local clients to more then 140,000 household clients today, regionally, with several thousand commercial customers beyond that as well as a few hundred industrial customers, and 9,000 gas clients.  Their revenues have grown along with the customer base.  This is one of the key facets of the Energiewende:  people taking control of their power in their communities.  For more on EWS Schönau, see this short video.  (For an hour’s worth, see this, subtitled in English.)

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