The people of Germany want a transition to renewable energy sources. But they want to have a say in how it's implemented, and they want to benefit from renewable energy themselves - including financially. Three examples illustrate how citizens are coming together to take on the job of supplying their own clean energy, and are thus helping to promote a cleaner future.
Lush green fields spread out across the marshlands near the North Sea coast of Germany. Here, where the Elbe River flows into the sea, beaches, bike trails, and nature reserves invite tourists to relax and recuperate. But the region around the Lower Saxony community of Oederquart has something else to offer the local economy — wind. An investor from southern Germany realized this in the 1990s and began negotiating with landowners to develop real estate for a wind farm.Many people felt that the village’s tranquility was threatened. Would they have to listen to giant wind turbines from now on, while only a few people in town would profit from them? The investor was turned down. Instead, the community of 1,150 people quickly formed a cooperative that subsequently became a company called the Citizens’ Windpark Oederquart Management Society mbH. The objective was for the community to harvest the wind. Soon, all suitable pieces of land were identified in line with the town’s land use plan. Every citizen could participate in the wind farm by investing DM1,000 (€511) or more. Informational events, press releases, and advertising campaigns helped to sell the residents on the project. “We had no idea of what we were letting ourselves in for — not in terms of the dimensions, the money, the construction or the legal aspects. We went into this like a group of Boy Scouts,” recalls Jürgen Goldenstein, who today is the Executive Manager of the town’s wind park. The community brought in a planning office. Measurements of wind potential, environmental impact studies, and licensing procedures were carried out before the first wind turbine entered service in December 1997. In the following years 15 more units were added, including some from Siemens. The current installation can generate up to 28 megawatts in total. But it was a pretty rough road before the wind farm got to where it is now. The wind estimates were too optimistic, for example, which meant that during some years the yield was below expectations. These days, though, the mood in the community is positive. Almost 400 shareholders have invested in the town’s wind park since 1994. Partly as a result of the energy transition and the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany, people in Oederquart feel they’ve been doing things right. Achieving something as a group that would be impossible for individuals to do — that’s the idea behind citizen-owned energy parks. In Germany, the birthplace of the cooperative, this idea is more alive than ever. In many cases, citizens can participate with only modest sums of a few hundred euros. The trend these days is toward self-reliance. From 2007 to 2011 the number of registered energy cooperatives in Germany rose from 101 to 586. In the course of a year more than 80,000 Germans cover all of their household electricity needs from these cooperatives, according to the German Cooperative and Raiffeisen Confederation (DGRV). In 2010, 40 percent of renewable energy production capacity in Germany was in the hands of private individuals, and an additional 11 percent was owned by farmers. By comparison, according to the trend:research market institute and the Klaus Novy Institute and supported by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, only 6.5 percent of capacity was owned by the four biggest German energy suppliers. Through this development, individual citizens have become pioneers in Germany’s energy transition. “Energy cooperatives are an ideal way for citizens to engage in the restructuring of the electrical infrastructure where they live. In the process they increase the level of acceptance for regional energy projects,” says Dr. Eckhard Ott, CEO of DGRV. People have many reasons for getting involved. They want to make a difference in their own region, they want to be independent from fossil fuels or they want to make sure that money stays in the region — for example, through citizens operating a wind farm themselves, hiring regional contractors, and making sure business taxes flow back into the local community. The risks are few. According to Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG), green electricity produced by “self-made” power plants must be fed into the grid. To be successful, the facility’s location must be well chosen, the costs must be calculated realistically, and there has to be enough interest in participation to support the project. The network operator and the local energy company must also be involved in the enterprise to make sure that the electricity can ultimately flow into the power grid.
Reliable Income. Citizen-based energy projects can mean extra income for regions with underdeveloped infrastructures in particular. A successful example of this is the Bassens wind farm. In this Lower Saxony community, which is only 500 meters from the North Sea, the construction of numerous individual wind units was planned in the 1990s. Resentment arose among citizens, however, who were primarily opposed to the number of planned wind turbines. Preliminary projections indicated that the project was viable. But the community wanted the wind energy facilities to be planned in an orderly way, thus requiring the creation of a land use plan. The local farmers eventually accepted the development as proposed in the plan, but only on one condition: “When the wind turbines are built, we want to operate them ourselves and get the profits, instead of just having to look at them,” said Johann Dirks, a co-founder of the initiative. Today Dirks is one of the managing directors of Windpark Bassens GmbH and Bürgerpark KG.A total of 16 farmers gave the go-ahead and visited residents of the surrounding area to encourage them to back the new wind farm. In the end, around 120 households came together to put up about a fourth of the needed capital. A planning firm helped out by hiring contractors and supervising construction. Every year now, the raw North Sea wind ensures that the shareholders receive their promised payment. The 34 units with their output of 20.4 megawatts provide around 45 million kilowatt hours a year to meet the needs of some 10,000 households. These examples show that, especially in the case of wind energy, acceptance by citizens is significantly higher if they actively participate in projects — both financially and in terms of decision-making.Germany also has citizen cooperatives for heat generation. One of them is in Honigsee, a small community of 450 inhabitants southeast of Kiel. In 2006 two farmers built a biogas facility there and declared that they were willing to make the waste heat from the attached cogeneration plants available to the citizens for free. The only condition was that the citizens themselves would have to install a local heat distribution network. At first no one in the village knew how to make such a network a reality. “After all, we weren’t engineers or network builders. When we brought in the local energy provider, the company politely declined to get involved in the project, on the assumption that the network would be too expensive and wouldn’t be financially feasible,” says the initiative’s co-founder Dr. Frank Heblich, who is also a former member of the cooperative’s Board. But the group that initiated the project just couldn’t let go of the idea — to take the waste heat that was readily available and make use of it while at the same time saving on fossil fuels and costs. They worked out how expensive the network would be to build, how much of the energy they could expect to be consumed, and the most money the project could ultimately cost each shareholder while still remaining attractive to consumers. Making such a project a reality depends on the number of households that are connected to the network. So a meeting of local residents was called to win them over to the project. “Their biggest worry was that, since the old heating system would ultimately have to be completely dismantled, the heat might run out in the winter,” says Heblich. What finally convinced local residents were the cost savings they would see. They decided to found a cooperative, which would provide 30 percent of the investment costs; the rest would come from loans and a government support program. An engineer gave professional support to the program and helped to solicit construction bids. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in June 2007. One hundred days later the first household was connected to the network. Today, most of the village is hooked up. The big heating failure that some had feared never occurred, and there have only been three instances when the operators had to rent a mobile heating unit, which distributed heat within a few hours. Today a biogas burner is ready if there should be another failure. Around 1,500 metric tons of CO2 emissions have been obviated in Honigsee since the local heating network was installed. This is another example that shows that every citizen can contribute to the expansion of renewable sources of energy — but only if people work together as a community. The bottom-up energy transition has begun.
Citizen Participation Worldwide. Denmark and Germany have traditionally considered renewable energy a priority, and their people are among the pioneers in citizen-owned-and-operated energy facilities. Since 1991, Germany’s Act on the Sale of Electricity to the Grid has enabled people to feed energy generated from renewable sources into the power grid and be paid for it. In Denmark, as a reaction to the energy crises of the 1970s, private citizens were given tax breaks for generating their own energy. The program was a success. In 1996 there were already more than 2,000 wind energy cooperatives in Denmark. By 2004 around 150,000 families belonged to wind energy cooperatives, and today approximately one fourth of Denmark’s electricity needs are fulfilled by wind energy.North America has begun to imitate this approach. Since 2009 the Canadian province of Ontario has been encouraging its citizens to generate their own energy. For a fixed feed-in tariff, private citizens can feed their clean, self-generated electricity into the grid for a specific contract period. Contracts of this type account for more than 3,500 MW of generated power — the equivalent of four large power plants. Citizen participation is also being encouraged in Minnesota, where approximately 27 percent of the wind capacity is owned by cooperative ventures, compared to a national average of only one percent.