Woman Rallies German Community to Take Over Power Grid, Fight Nuclear and Coal Energy


Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

When the Chernobyl disaster struck 25 years ago, Ursula Sladek, a woman from the small community of Schönau in Germany's Black Forest, was sparked to action. She started what would become a decades-long, nationwide effort against nuclear power, and all other dirty sources of energy. It eventually became clear that taking over the local power grid was the only way to have more say in what kind of energy she and her community used.

They wanted cleaner energy, and they wanted to provide people throughout Germany with the same option. Sladek eventually became the founder and president of Schönau Power Supply, one of Europe's first cooperatively-owned green energy companies. The company now provides power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. I talked to Sladek, another of this year's Goldman Prize winners, about some of her goals and the struggles she's faced over the years.TreeHugger: Does Schönau Power Supply receive any support from the government? Where have you been able to get funding?
Ursula Sladek: We never get money from the government, we've never gotten money from any institution. We got money from the people when we overtook local grid. The former grid operator wanted much more money than the grid was worth. We gathered money from people who agreed with our goals and who bought shares. So we had the four million marks we needed to have, but then the former grid operator wanted to nearly nine million deutschmarks, which was more than double. So we had a Germany-wide campaign for donations. People gave us donations to help us buy the grid, so the help we got was really from the people—from companies, from ordinary people, from schoolchildren, from people who refused birthday presents and wanted donations to the Schönau initiative instead. This was really overwhelming and since that, I know that you can nearly do anything, if it is a good goal.

Can you talk more about the process of buying out the grid?
We had two referendums about getting the grid. After the second referendum, the operator said, 'you have the votes, but we have the grid. We want 9 million marks for the grid and if you don't have that, you won't get it.' The grid operator thought we would be frightened and say we cannot do that. But we knew he was wrong, so we had the idea to get donations.

After six weeks, we had the first million marks. Then the former CEO of the grid operator called me and said, 'Mrs. Sladek, you are damaging our reputation.' (The campaign was in all the media in Germany.) And I said, you must be understanding something really wrong. It's not we who are damaging your reputation, it's yourself doing that.

So they lowered their price to 6.5 million marks. We got into negotiations and we paid 5.8 million Deutschmarks. But this was still too much.

We took it to court and after seven years, the court said the grid isn't worth nine million Deutschmarks or even four million, which was our suggested price, but only 3.5 million Deutschmarks, and the grid operator had to pay us back all the extra money we'd paid.

As you expand, is the challenge more in increasing energy supply or creating demand?
It's more of a challenge to create demand. But at the moment, after Fukushima, all people in Germany are saying, we want to have environmentally produced electricity, we do not want nuclear energy. So at the moment, we have about 400 new customers every day. And we do not have to do anything for that. They are just coming to us.

And this is a visible change only since Fukushima?
It really is. Even the German government, our Chancellor Merkel said the world is not the same after Fukushima as it was before. We really didn't believe that a highly industrialized country such as Japan could not control such a thing. So now people think of it differently than they did before.

Because what happened in Japan could happen in Germany or in the UK or in the U.S. Of course we don't have earthquakes like that or tsunamis, but we have other things. It might be an airplane accident. It could come down on a nuclear power plant, and the containment system might not hold it.

People can make mistakes working in the power plants. We had Chernobyl 25 years ago, and we should have known. Now Fukushima happened. We do not need another and another accident like that.

I'm really convinced that in every country of the world, it is possible to get rid of nuclear energy, to get rid of coal energy, of fossil energy and just to change to renewable energy by of course energy efficiency, energy saving, renewable energy and cogeneration—these are the solutions both for nuclear risks and climate change.

And your current goal is to reach one million customers by 2015?
Yes, but this is only one goal. What we are doing is not just selling electricity, but trying to change structures: from large centralized power plants to small decentralized power plants. And what's important is to take the citizens with you.

That argument, not in my garden, to convince them that it's such a great task for all mankind. Because we do not only have nuclear risks. We also have climate change, which is a great challenge all over the world. So you really need everybody to take part in that. What we want to do is decentralize and democratize energy supply.

We work in a large network with citizens' initiatives, environmental groups, with communities, this is perhaps more important than having one million customers. The customers are not only customers of Schönau, but they help us and they are important too.

Do you face any NIMBYism, or "not in my backyard" mentality?
Yes of course. Especially when you think of wind energy. Where we live in the Black Forest, people do not want to have windmills. But now after Fukushima, I think minds will be changing. Wind is expected to be the largest part of renewable energy source in Germany. You have to have it everywhere.

We have a windmill near Schönau, and I must say, I like it very much. It's very calming to look at it. I think people will really think differently about that.

What other kinds of challenges have you faced?
Well the issue with the power grid operator was a real great challenge. The other challenge is political because we had the conservative liberal party take over the government, and they decided last September that the old nuclear power plants in Germany should run longer than the previous government had decided.

There's a large antinuclear movement in Germany and we had great demonstrations against that, but the government said we cannot have renewable energy as fast as you want. But Mrs. Merkel and her government now thinks differently about that because she now knows what risks there are in nuclear energy. So we have hope now that we can get rid of the power plants, and I hope they won't change their minds.

As you can imagine, the large power plant operators have a great pressure on the government at the moment. They want to run their oldest power plants longer, because they gain, on every nuclear power plant, one million Euro a day. So they don't want to shut them down.

Do you see the government bowing to that pressure?
I hope not. And the citizens will apply pressure from the other side. So it depends on who can make more pressure in the end.

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Tags: Activism | Awards | Energy Efficiency | Germany | Goldman Environmental Prize | Renewable Energy | Solar Power

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