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In Germany, Everyone Can Be an Energy Producer

Clean Break: Chapter 3 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 15, 2012
Markus Bohnert, co-director of Bürger Energie St. Peter.

Sankt Peter im Schwarzwald, Germany—The Abbey of St. Peter in the Black Forest has had its ups and downs since its founding in 1090. It burned to the ground in 1238. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by fire in 1437, establishing a pattern that would be repeated for several centuries. In 1727, after it went up in flames yet again, citizens of this close-knit mountain village decided to try something different. They built a new church from blocks of fireproof sandstone, creating an imposing structure that still dominates their postcard-perfect village.

Today, the Abbey is known as one of Germany's most exquisite Baroque buildings. What isn't widely known is that it's also a vivid example of Germany's recent Energiewende and how the energy revolution was built from the bottom up.

The Abbey complex was originally heated by fireplaces, which were eventually replaced with a central heating system that consumed 34,000 gallons of heating oil a year. But on the chilly day I visited the magnificent church, not ein Fingerhut (one thimbleful) of oil was burned to keep me toasty. The heat came from water that had been brought nearly to a boil in a state-of-the-art furnace fueled by wood chips. Somewhere between the size of an SUV and a school bus, the furnace sat in a concrete building a few hundred yards from the Abbey. From that non-descript building, hot water was pumped through four miles of insulated pipes that connect the Abbey to most of the shops and houses in St. Peter, as well as to the school, public swimming pools, the town hall, a spacious community center and other assorted buildings.

"If fossil fuel prices rise again, there won't be any problems," explained Markus Bohnert, co-director of Bürger Energie (Citizen Energy), which owns the facility, as we watched a farmer dump a tractor-load of sweet-smelling wood chips into a shed behind the furnace building. "This is an important step to get away from coal and fossil energy."

This is Chapter 3 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 4Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. Or read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.

Bürger Energie represents a sea change far more profound than the construction of the sandstone church almost 300 years ago—it represents Germany's shift from large, utility-owned power plants to smaller, consumer-owned generators that produce power from renewable sources. Some experts believe this transition is the soul of Germany's energy revolution.

In the United States, this model is called "distributed generation"—or "DG" for short—and it has attracted a small but growing base of advocates. John Farrell, a senior researcher with the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is one of the movement's most prominent fans. He supports DG for a variety of reasons, including its efficiency (high) and cost (low). But the benefit that drives Farrell is what he calls the democratization of energy.

Click here to view the slideshow of Germany's switch to renewables.

"With DG, anyone can be a power producer," Farrell told me recently by phone. He compared DG to another technological advance, the development of the computer, which changed the world a generation ago. "We went from supercomputers in a basement somewhere to desktops and the Internet. The result is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts."

At heart, Farrell says, DG is a matter of equity—of individual, entrepreneurial freedom.

"There's money to be made from generating electricity," he said. "Everyone should have a chance to reap those economic benefits."

That is what's happening in St. Peter. Like the hot water that keeps its houses warm, the money that had once flowed to distant utilities now circulates throughout the village. Bohnert pointed to the middle-aged man in heavy gray overalls and muddy work boots who was dumping the wood chips. They came from trees he had thinned on his woodlot.

"That's Konrad Schwär," Bohnert said. "His dairy farm is just down the road. He gets heat from the pipeline and a fair price for the wood chips."

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