Sladek was a pioneer in the movement. In 1986, after radiation from a Soviet reactor in Chernobyl rained down on Schönau, she led a group of 650 villagers who tried to persuade their utility, a regional monopoly, to stop using nuclear power. When their efforts failed, the group made a pivotal decision: They would generate their own electricity from safe, renewable power. The David-and-Goliath battle lasted a decade, but the group's ultimate success helped reshape Germany's energy landscape.
I talked with Sladek over tea at the cooperative she founded, the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau, a modern single-story building with solar panels on the roof, deep in the Black Forest. The once rag-tag operation today supplies renewable energy to 180,000 homes and is adding more than 2,000 new customers a month.
When it was time for Sladek to get back to work, I finished with the one question I asked in almost every interview: What lessons can the United States learn from Germany's Energiewende?
The question took her by surprise. She looked around the room at what had been accomplished by a handful of ordinary citizens. "This is something very American, isn't it? " she said. "The Americans are people who say: 'We can do it ourselves.'"
Sladek paused. Then she spoke slowly and simply like the schoolteacher she once was. "You can't wait for what you want to come from above," she said. "We are here. We can do something. And so, we begin."
Funding for Clean Break was provided by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, through a Climate Media Fellowship, and by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.