Keeping Energy Production Local

A closer look into how small German towns are leading the way in the Energiewende

Today marks a full week of education in Germany, and the entire group has settled into our daily routine. Our first stop this morning was in a small town called Emmendingen. Emmendingen, with twenty six thousand residents, would be a relatively small town in the United States. Our Guide, Erhard Schulz, used his opening remarks to talk about the cooperative energy projects in which he was a part owner. Shortly after, he gave us a tour of two small hydroelectric power plants. The two different plants appeared similar from the outside. However, the plants had completely different systems for generating electricity, and came into existence in different ways.

The owner of a hydroelectric dam shows us different designs for dams and different ways to create electricity.
Photo by: Emily Bulla
A resident’s car in a town just outside of Freiburg. The car is strictly powered by the solar panel that is positioned on the top of the car. Besides his electric car, the resident also owns and runs six hydroelectric dams that create 1.5 million kW electricity and supply 2,000 people in the town with electricity.
Photo by: Emily Bulla

The first was Mr. Schulz’s cooperative power plant. This power plant had an interesting history. It was built in 1925 in conjunction with a larger power plant for the municipality. However, when the government wanted to shut the hydroplant down, the citizens came together and bought the plant for themselves. It has remained that way since then. The second power plant was privately held by a man in the town. Although it was held by a private entity, he financed his project with local investors. This kept the money in the community.

This is part of the first hydroelectric power plant. It uses a Francis Turbine to create electricity which draws from the vertical pressure of water.
This is the outside of the second hydroelectric plant we saw. It is important to note the fish canal at the bottom of the picture that allows the fish to still use the stream.
This is the inside of one of the hydropower plants that we saw. It uses an archimedes screw in reverse to generate power.

I would argue that this is. an interesting concept that could be studIed more in the United States. These projects had Internal Rates of Return that hovered around 6-8 percent. In the United States, any private equity investment is going to hover in the teens, so it would be unlikely to find money to scale up. By keeping it small and local, these power plants can return a lower amount of money, find enough investors, and keep that return in the community. A lot of people in the business world think that renewable energy doesn’t make sense for investors. Emmendingen is an example of how creative strategies can be used to pay for renewable energy.

Keeping it local had more than just financial benefits. They used completely different methods to create the electricity. The first plant used a Francis Turbine. It is a more common method that uses vertical water pressure to generate the electricity, and generates about 110 kilowatts. The second fan older technology that dates back to ancient times. It uses an archimedes screw in reverse to spin a turbine. This was slightly less efficient, but was better for the ecology of the stream. The fact that two plants that were less than a mile apart would use different methods seemed odd to me at first. As I thought about it more, I realized that this specialization was another major benefit of keeping it local. This small, more personalized management system allowed for these different methods to be utilized. This may not of made a huge difference in the context of the power plants. However, looking at the Energiewende as a whole, this individuality could be crucial. The world needs a strong mix of renewable energy sources to truly see a carbon free future. This small town management could be key to realizing that diversification.

This notion was further backed up by the next town we visited, Wyhl. This was the birthplace of the antinuclear movement, and the renewable energy movement. It all started by protesting a new nuclear power plant. Now, it is the fastest growing movement for energy in the world. Wyhl did not look any different than the other towns we visited mainly because it wasn’t all that different. This proved how powerful small towns can be when it’s people work together. I think it’s safe to say that the development of municipal governments and small town energy production will play a gigantic role in the completion of the Energiewende.

This picture was taken at one of the community meetings during the long fight against the Wyhl Nuclear Plant. It depicts the amount of effort that was put together by the town.
This is a small monument to the anti nuclear movement located in Wyhl. It marked the spot that the plant was supposed to be built on. Instead of the nuclear plant being built there, they now have a nature reserve for the surrounding communities to visit.
This is a poster from the Wyhl Village that represents the fight against nuclear that started in that town.
These flags, outside the anti-nuclear protest archive, are the symbols for the German people’s Energiewende movement away from nuclear and towards renewables. Photo by: Emily Bulla

-Matthew Bravante