· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Energy Transition. A small German district shows the way

Although Germany has failed to meet its climate objectives, and energy companies are still clinging to coal, a small district North of Berlin is showing the way. Commitments made by both local authorities and citizens to renewable energy have paid off, with renewable energy sources now covering 133% of residents’ electricity needs.

In September 2019, over 200,000 people took to Berlin’s streets to protest against climate change, as protesters feel the federal government is not doing enough to address the climate crisis. And the figures back them up; Germany is clearly struggling to meet its climate commitments, falling short of its objective to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, with the current reduction rate standing at just 32%. If Germany fails to take action, the goal of a 55% reduction by 2030 will also be another case of wishful thinking. The country’s failure to cut emissions sufficiently is largely due to coal-fired power plants still operating in Germany. Operators of the country’s power plants and coal mines – energy groups RWE, EnBW and EPH (the group owned by Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky) have no interest whatsoever in fast-tracking a phase-out of coal. Last year, a national commission stated that Germany would stop using coal by 2038. But for environmental activists, this is much too late, especially since cities and towns have illustrated that there is nothing standing in the way of a faster transition to renewable energy.

The district of Barnim, North of Berlin, has proven that it can indeed be done, already achieving a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2011. The district, which is home to 180,000 people, had already set up a zero-emissions strategy as early as 2007. “We started off by studying the region’s energy resources,” recalls Ina Bassin, who works on developing the district’s renewable energy sources. “We found that Barnim could hypothetically become self-sufficient in renewables.”

44% of the region’s energy was already sourced from renewables in 2008, with the region’s large fields suitable for wind turbines and other open spaces ideal for solar panels, well above the national average of 13%. The district decided to take it further and obtained almost one million euros in federal funding for this purpose. An agency was established to study the issue and, in 2013, the district founded its own district-run limited liability company, the Barnimer Energiegesellschaft mbH (BEG), where Ina Bassin is now employed. The company provides advice to local towns and companies and runs programmes to help them reduce their CO2 emissions.

Green energy covers 133% of electricity needs

The strategy is visibly paying off. There are 2,300 installations generating green energy in the district, which include wind turbines, solar panels and biogas plants, covering 133% of resident’s electricity needs. In 2017, local authorities even found- ed a new company, the “Kreiswerke Barnim”, which would go beyond providing advice and develop its own projects. Green energy can turn out to be a lucrative industry in Germany. The German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) (2000), provided a guaranteed feed-in tariff on green energy for 20 years. Feed-in tariffs of course decrease over time and with revisions to the EEG, but in 2018, electricity generated by Barnim’s renewable energy facilities was sold for 85.2 millions euros.

“In the past, wind turbines were generally managed by individuals or companies outside the district,” explains Thomas Simon, CEO of the BEG. “They used – we could even say exploited – our space without paying local taxes. This doesn’t foster a particularly positive attitude towards renewables. But when projects are run by regional authorities, taxpayers benefit directly from them. Towns use this money to build infrastructure likes schools and gymnasiums.” Towns also hire local tradesmen and companies for the projects. In addition, a network of tradesmen has been set up, offering training to those wishing to specialise in green energy. In 2016, the The Institute for Decentralised Energy Technologies (IDE) in Germany carried out a study to assess the added value, and what share of it remained in the local economy, of two similar wind energy projects, one undertaken by an external energy corporation, and one by a municipal company. It concluded that the second project would bring 8 to 10 more local added value than the “corporate” project.

Barnim’s strategy goes a lot further than just generating electricity. Barnimer Kreiswerke is, for instance, upgrading street lighting in several townships by installing LED lamps which are much more energy-efficient than conventional bulbs. But one of the most challenging areas is undoubtably that of heating. Renewable energy currently only accounts for 22% of the district’s heating needs. Heat is difficult to transport and heating facilities would require major investments. Yet the local government is determined to show the way. In 2007, the district council moved its offices to the Paul Wunderlich house in Eberswalde, the district’s administrative centre. As well as being extremely well-insulated, the wood-panelled building’s heating and ventilation system is run on geothermal energy, using 70% less energy than an office building run on conventional energy.

Whereas the creation of BEG, which has mostly an advisory role, was politically quite consensual, establishing a district energy company such as the Kreiswerke involved much more debate. It took two years to convince all the local political parties. Large energy companies such as RWE and E.ON were not very happy either with the new competition. The district company would like, for instance, to take over the local electricity grid, which for the moment is run by an operator which is owned at 33% by city councils and 67% by E.ON.

Electric car-sharing

In terms of transport, the district is working to promote electric cars, using funding acquired from the Federal Ministry of Transport to increase the number of charging stations. Part of the council’s car fleet is also electric. As these company cars are not used outside of office hours, a car-sharing scheme called BARshare was launched in June in order get the most use out of them. Eberswalde residents can now, using an app on their phones, hire these electric cars in the evenings and weekends. “300 people have already signed up,” says a pleased Ina Bassin.

The district wanted to do more than just show residents the benefits of a renewable energy policy, however. They also wanted them to play an active part in it. In order to achieve this, local authorities backed the creation of an energy cooperative called Barnimer Energiewandel eG. The cooperative received 45,000 euros in funding, enough for two part-time employees, one of which is Madlen Haney. “It can be complicated and very time consuming to get a cooperative off the ground. When there are only volunteers involved it can be difficult to manage the process and get projects underway,” she says.

The cooperative is going to join forces with the Kreiswerke, making it possible for its members to contribute financially to certain projects and thus benefit from a return on their investments. But it’s not just about money; the cooperative also wants to be actively involved in renewables. It has plans to put solar panels on the roof of a small business in one of the region’s villages. It also sells solar panels for balconies. Equipped with a small inverter and a cable, these small photovoltaic panels generate electricity that directly supplies the household grid. “The price for our members is 333 euros,” says Madlen Haney. “We’ve already sold about ten. This enables households to bring down their electricity bill and gain independence from big suppliers.”

A federal policy that is not particularly supportive

This passionate advocate of the energy transition would like, however, to see more support from the federal government. She is particularly disappointed about the radical drop in subsidies for solar energy following the 2012 revision of the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). At the time, there was a boom in solar energy and the government saw the amount of public spending being pumped into it as a reason to slow down subsidies. Every month, the feed-in tariff for electricity generated by photovoltaic panels decreases by between 0.5 and 1%. This means that solar installations built today bring 10.18 cents per kWh against 28.74 cents in 2011.

At the same time, the price of solar panels has dropped significantly. The energy giant EnBW (partly owned by Land of Bade-Wurtemberg) even has plans to build an enormous solar park in Barnim without any government subsidies. Although still operating several nuclear power plants and coal-fired power stations, EnBW is seeking to branch out into renewable energy, at the expense of municipal operators or cooperatives. “They can buy solar panels wholesale, which means they get better prices than a small cooperative that has to go through a retailer,” explains Madlen Haney. “The various revisions to the EEG have meant that smaller renewable energy companies are now facing real insecurity. It is, for instance, still hard to find tradesmen specialised in mounting solar panels. So although the price on panels may have dropped, installing them is another matter.” However, the cooperative now has 31 members and 80 others subscribe to the newsletter, which keeps them up to date with developments.

To ensure the zero-emission strategy is kept up, it’s not just adults that the district has to win over, it’s also the younger generation. “Children are the future,” says Ina Bassin. It didn’t take long for the BEG to set up an “environment fund” to train early childhood educators in environmental concerns so that young children are also aware of the issues. There is also an environmental centre in Eberswalde which school groups can visit, with an interactive exhibition that provides information on how wind turbines work, as well as on waste management.

A university in line with district’s objectives

If ever young people are inspired to pursue a career in renewable energy, they won’t have to go far. Eberswalde’s Sustainable Development School, a public university, opened its doors in 1992. A number of different courses are on offer with subjects as diverse as agroecology, sustainable tourism and urban and territorial planning. The students also play a significant part in ecological innovation. Three of the Institute’s graduates created the company Öklo, which builds and hires out mobile composting toilets. The toilets are particularly innovative in that they have been designed to recover certain substances that are excreted, such as phosphorus, a large quantity of which is present in urine, so as to reuse it.

The Kreiswerke Barnim has teamed up with Öklo as well as with several universities and institutes in order to develop a new composting toilet for homes, which would also recover the phosphorous. “Each time you flush the chain, you use six to nine litres of drinking water,” points out Thomas Simon. “This resource is becoming increasingly scarce. We absolutely have to stop wasting it.” But the latest big project is focussed on hydrogen. “We are producing more of this green energy than we are using, and we had to find a smart way to use the surplus,” remarks Thomas Simon. “We are thus going to install electrolysers on several wind turbines, which will transform the electric current into hydrogen. This gas will then be used to run buses and trains in the area.” The first hydrogen-powered trains are expected to run between Berlin and Eberswalde within the next two to three years.

Meanwhile, the federal government is adopting a climate plan to try and get its climate goals back on track. Ina Bassin, Thomas Simon and Madlen Haney all agree, however, that the plan isn’t ambitious enough to enable Germany to sufficiently reduce its CO2 emissions. But this isn’t about to dampen their spirits. “We hope many other districts will follow in our footsteps,” says Thomas Simon, who has been in touch with other districts interested in creating their own energy company.

By Déborah Berlioz

In love with Berlin, Déborah Berlioz settled in the city in 2009. An independent journalist, she works for various French-speaking media, including the Radio France Internationale broadcast « Accents d’Europe » and the weekly Réforme.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: © Torsten Stapel.

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