The Priest who broke the law (for solar), and the village that bought back the grid

Schönau. Village of 2500 inhabitants in the Black Forest. A beautiful remote alpine village like any other, right?
This is arguably the global birthplace of the citizen energy movement and fittingly the first stop on my round the world journey. Their story has been told many times. SBS even did a segment on them. So did RenewEconomy.
But I want to tell you a lesser known story about the local Priest.

Peter Hasenbrink and me
Peter Hasenbrink and me

Meet Priest Peter, the ‘Energy Rebel’
Peter Hasenbrink is a short man. But big hearted.
I’ve just knocked on the door to his Priest’s residence, unannounced, hoping he can spare a few minutes tell me his story. He invites me in for a tea, and he begins telling the story with great enthusiasm.
Back in 1998, a collection of villagers including the local doctor, the policeman and a mothers group would meet regularly at the community centre to talk about big issues seemingly beyond their control. Issues like climate change, the risks of nuclear energy and the corporate powers who control their energy.
Peter decided to join in. With the church as a focal point for the village, Peter thought the Church could show true leadership by going solar. But, unfortunately for Peter, the State Government in Stuttgart refused planning approval on heritage grounds. Installing solar was against the law.
So what did Peter do?
He threw a big parade leading to the church. The party was themed on the Baden revolution of 1848 as a metaphor to herald the arrival of the clean energy revolution.
And then, with most of the villagers crowded around, Peter did what no Priest had done before.
He got up on the roof and installed the first panel – illegally!
“Yes, my stomach was very nervous! We did it with a smile on our face, but really it was a career gamble”
The Church movement was not your typically activist incubator. When asked about his ‘rebel’ status, Peters chortles a belly laugh.
“Even Jesus had some Rebel-like qualities!”
Making it more remarkable, solar was hardly cost effective in 1998. The project economics were abysmal compared to today. The 50kW system was to cost 795,000 German Marks (A$795,000).
But this was not about money. “Someone had to do it first”, says Peter.
And that’s what makes Peter’s actions so brave. Almost 4000 people from around Europe helped finance the system. Funding came from three sources: roughly 1/3rd citizen donations, 1/3rd citizen investment, and 1/3rd church funding.
“Not having approval really helped when it came to raising the money”, he laughs. “It was like a miracle”.
Having the Priest so publicly on board made it more acceptable for villagers to talk openly about the broader movement gathering momentum in the community.
See a 2 minute interview with him here (includes special message for Australia church leaders):
Schönau – the Energy Village
With Peter’s solar powered church taking some key first steps, Schönau ended up buying back the local grid off the utility. This David v Goliath battle attracted large exposure for the so-called ‘Energy Rebels of Schönau’.
It inspired countless other municipal grid buy backs across Germany. Schönau’s community owned grid co-operative, EWS, expanded operations to energy retailing – they now sell green, nuclear-free energy to almost 180,000 customers. The co-operative employs 100 staff.
Perhaps most importantly, Schönau served as a founding pillar of the German anti-nuclear movement which culminated in a political decision to decommission all nuclear reactors by 2025.
Now, energy tourists like me are a regular contributor to their economy. The two main leaders – Michael and Ursula Sladek have been won numerous prestigious awards and are heroes of the global people power movement. Each year the village hosts the Energy Rebel’s conference, which helps organisations from around the world rise up and take power into their own hands. Now, post-Fukushima, the Sladek’s are helping similar movements emerge in Japan.

EWS founder Ursula Sladek meets President Obama after receiving the Goldman Environment Prize in 2011. She presented him with a list of reasons not to use Nuclear Energy. True to form, she smuggled the list into the White house.

This village is testament to what people can achieve in small, committed groups. I watched the documentary when it aired on SBS. A year later I’d started Repower Shoalhaven – inspired by these people in a German village. All change begins at home, but it can spread across the globe. And Peter’s bravery planted a seed, which became a movement, which went mainstream and is now shutting down Nuclear reactors. I have a feeling, though, the biggest changes are yet to come.

ElectrizitätsWerke Schönau – dossier
Entity Type: Co-operative
Service offering: Distribution Network operator (12,500 connections).
Clean Energy retailer (177,000 customers).
‘Solarcents’ program (2600 customers receive bonus credits for PV exports)
Co-operative members: 4300
Shareholder returns – 3-5% per annum
More fun EWS facts: 

  • EWS sell 100% nuclear free clean energy. Most is purchased from Norwegian Hydropower via direct contract with generators.
  • Approximately 50% of energy used by the Schönau network is locally generated .
  • 9% WACC returns on the network provides stable returns for anti-nuclear advocacy and energy efficiency and information programs.

Chris Cooper writes a blog at Citizen Power. He will be filing regularly for us in coming weeks as he continues his world tour of energy innovators.

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