In Germany, ruddy-cheeked farmers achieve (green) energy independence
Freiamt residents produce 17 percent more electricity than they use, boosting their bottom line and proving that green isn’t just for geeky idealists.
Dawn was just breaking over the Black Forest when Helga Schneider climbed out of bed, tugged on her overalls and thick brown galoshes, and trudged out to the cow pen. She herded a dozen head into a tiled alcove strewn with straw and manure, and began fixing rubber hoses to swollen udders.Skip to next paragraph
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Within minutes, milk was snaking through a maze of tubes to a copper-plated box the size of a cinder block, where the warmth was siphoned off and stored for heating everything from the Schneider’s bath water to their home.
Many residents of this farming village have also found creative ways to harvest energy, be it turning manure into biofuel or installing turbines in the local creek. Thanks to their ingenuity, Freiamt is not only energy independent, but produces 17 percent more power than it uses.
It’s a feat that defies conventional ideas about energy – that big companies are key to a secure supply, that renewable sources can only meet a fraction of society’s needs, that green energy is the domain of liberals and idealists.
“We’re talking about a village of traditional farmers, and yet they’re changing ideas about what is possible,” says Josef Pesch, CEO of FESA, a firm that develops community renewable-energy projects. “When it comes to renewables, Freiamt is a model for communities far and wide.”
Last year, the village generated 14.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity, or 2.1 million more than it used. That’s enough to power 600 additional German homes. For locals, who make their living mainly from tourism and agriculture, the turn toward green energy was less about big ideals than finding new income streams that wouldn’t harm the soil and forests.
“We’re no eco-rebels,” says Mayor Hannelore Reinbold-Mench. “We’re simply a community making a living off the land and all it has to offer.”
The idea first came in the late 1990s, when a group of investors from Hamburg started approaching farmers in Freiamt about leasing land for a wind farm.
Locals weren’t keen on outsiders harvesting their natural bounty. But a small group led by Ernst Leimer, who now heads the town’s wind energy association, began planting wind-measuring masts at promising sites. They also started holding town hall meetings in the hopes of rallying locals to build the project themselves.
When word of the plan began filtering through the community, some residents protested, saying the windmills would blemish the landscape and hurt tourism.
But as data from the masts rolled in, people began to grasp the financial potential, and support for the project grew. Eventually, as many as 1,000 of Freiamt’s 4,300 residents were showing up for information sessions. When the group began soliciting funds in mid-2001, it took only eight weeks to round up the $2.3 million down payment on two 400-foot-tall windmills. All of the money came from local investors.
“Lots of people know they can do something for the environment, but they don’t,” says Mr. Leimer. “Our community took action. We did something for the environment and something for the next generation. At the same time, we did something for ourselves.”