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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.

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The turbines were finally built in fall 2001. The next year, they churned out enough electricity to power about 1,600 German homes. Within two years, investors were getting a 10 percent annual return – thanks to Germany’s feed-in tariff law, which requires electricity-grid operators to buy renewable energy at a premium rate. The idea is to foster small-scale production of green energy.

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By 2003, Leimer’s group was laying plans for a third wind turbine and eight photovoltaic solar-power generators. But when they started hunting for roof space to lease for solar panels, something curious happened. “People said, ‘It’s my roof. Why should I lease it to someone else rather than build my own solar-power system?’” recalls Ms. Reinbold-Mench.

Before long, solar panels began cropping up on crumbling barns and old farmhouses all over town. Some residents also started venturing into other technologies.

Today, Freiamt has four windmills, around 250 rooftop solar systems generating heat and electricity, and a handful of biogas digesters, which turn animal dung and other organic waste into fuel. Several residents have also ripped out ancient water wheels and installed modern hydro generators.

The Mellert bakery and gristmill, with its four stories of whirring machines and baking ovens, is powered by a water turbine. So is the rustic saw mill owned by Gottlieb Reinbold, a white-haired former pig farmer in patched overalls. During peak season, the turbine produces enough electricity to power both the mill and his home. It also feeds enough power into the grid to earn him $880 a month, about half his total income.

“It’s not a lot of money,” he says. “But it helps to keep me afloat.”

Others villagers harvest energy from a mix of sources. The Schneider family supplements the heat they generate from cow milk with a zero-emission wood-chip boiler they installed between the racks of dusty mason jars in their basement. It’s fueled by leftover scraps from wood they harvest in a backyard patch of forest.

The family has also sunk more than $15,000 into the community windmill project and installed a billboard-size array of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof over the scalloped wood balconies of their farmhouse. The investment has paid off. The panels alone produce about 30,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year – 50 percent more energy than the Schneiders use. By feeding this into the grid, they earn roughly $24,000 annually.

The money helps fill the gap left by low wholesale milk prices and allows them to save for retirement. “We have to look toward the future,” says Mrs. Schneider. “My mother spent her whole life working the land, and she can’t live off her pension.”

The surge of renewable energy has also been a boon to Freiamt’s growing tourism industry. Many of the 42,000-plus visitors to the town each year are ecotourists, some from as far away as India and South Korea. Even some residents who initially opposed the project, are now leading hiking tours to the turbines – just one sign of the changes that have swept the village.

“People used to laugh at us,” says Reinbold-Mench “They thought of us as simple country folk. Now they’re coming from all over just to see what we’re doing, and that’s a huge source of pride for little Freiamt.”

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