German town goes off the grid, achieves energy independence

New Energy Forum Feldheim/Screen capture

Imagine a town which no longer relies on fossil fuels or nuclear power, a place where residents reached into their own pockets to build their own energy grid, reaping the benefit of lower electric and heating prices from their investment. You are dreaming of Feldheim, a 100% energy independent town.

More windmills than houses

The infrastructure for electric vehicle charging lured us to this small town 60 miles (90 km) south of Berlin, Germany. But it is the vast field of windmills, towering over the village of 150 inhabitants, that first catch your eye as you drive into town.

That vista greets thousands of visitors every year, people looking to Feldheim as a model for how to implement renewables into their infrastructure, perhaps even achieve their own energy independence. The local fire chief, Thomas Glück, told us that since Fukushima, the town has been flooded by delegations of Japanese representatives looking to learn from the locals.

© Christine Lepisto
Solar panels and windfarm at Feldheim

A field of 47 windmills supporting the town stands in the quiet, pastoral environment. Does the noise bother residents, we asked Glück? He admits that you can hear the windmills when the wind is blowing towards the town from the windfarm, but says that low, constant sound can be easily ignored.

There is another effect less mentioned by NIMBY reports: for a brief period just as the sun is at the right angle, the turning blades cast undulating shadows in the bedroom, a dizzying effect until the mind makes the logical association with the source of the flicker. The fact that residents benefit economically from the neighboring giants makes up for any small inconveniences, according to Glück.

Electricity prices 30% below average

An array of solar panels along the edge of town also feed the electrical grid. Town residents each contributed €3000 (approx US$4000) to build their own electrical grid in 2010, giving them complete control over their electrical prices, which are 30% less than average, with prices set at community meetings. Residents must carefully predict their usage in order to balance the grid, and penalties apply for significantly over- or under-estimating.

© Christine Lepisto
Electric vehicle infrastructure in Feldheim

The independent electricity production and showcase status of the town help to explain the electric vehicle charging infrastructure, with a plug-and-pay service station at the center of town (in front of what will become the New Energy Forum complex, with a restaurant and educational facilities) as well as a private box at the parking lot of the Energiequelle facility.

The town's next developments include storage facilities for two days worth of power, to reduce the difficulty of meeting legal requirements that include continuity of supply and regulations discouraging on feeding extra power back into the grid for profit from installations like that in Feldheim. Political discussion on how regulations benefit the big energy companies and discourage projects like Feldheim's continue.

© Christine Lepisto

Biogas heating recycles agricultural waste

Feldheim residents also heat their houses for 10% less than the average German. The biogas facility burns gases from the digestion of locally produced agricultural wastes. Built in 2008 at a cost of €1.7 million (US$2.2 million), half of which came from EU funds for renewable energy projects, the biogas feeds into each building in town. Fire chief Glück gave us a tour of the local volunteer fire department, explaining the heating system installed at the back of the room where the fire truck stands ready for service.

The company Energiequelle works with the town of Feldheim, providing the technical and financial know-how to organize the large energy projects there. 30 jobs have been created in town by the energy company. Glück explains that after a wheat price collapse, the energy projects have been critical to the survival of the small agricultural community.

© Christine Lepisto
Close-up of biogas heating at Feldheim fire department

We ask if residents have been disturbed by smells from the biogas factory, a question quickly regretted as the absolute naivete of the concept becomes clear. The biogas facility burns the stuff that used to smell bad, so in fact the facility provides net benefits in the NIMBY category.

The model may not work everywhere. The availability of agricultural wastes, the large expanses of land, and the motivation of the citizens constitute key factors to the success in this case. But hopefully the visits will continue as Feldheim's success catalyzes a revolution in sustainability and local energy independence around the globe.

See also: Building Giant 505-Feet Wind Turbines Offshore is No Easy Task!

Tags: Biofuels | Energy | Solar Energy | Solar Power | Wind Power

Best of TreeHugger