On Wednesday (August 5), Sebastian and I went to visit EWS Schönau, an extremely successful German energy cooperative. EWS was founded after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, when the town of Schönau’s provider KWR refused to phase out nuclear or move towards environmentally friendly energy. Schönau’s citizens realized the only way to change the status quo was to own the grid themselves, and after many negotiations, multiple citizens’ referenda, and a large fundraising effort, EWS was finally established (1994), allowed to operate Schönau’s electricity grid (1996), and allowed to buy and own this electricity grid (1997).
We were greeted at EWS by Tanja Gaudian. EWS currently sits in its own office building, with additional buildings for a workshop and a small entertainment center. The EWS office also has a co-generation plant, a fuel cell, and rooftop solar. With 100 employees, it’s the biggest company in Schönau (and incidentally, Schönau’s biggest taxpayer).
Ms. Gaudian explained that the current EWS initiative is split into three different companies. The first is a grid operating business, which operates in Schönau and the communities around it. EWS owns 9 electricity grids and 2 gas grids in local area. The second business is an energy producer, which produces energy through wind, solar, and co-generation. The third company (for which Ms. Gaudian works) is an electricity and gas supplier.
This EWS supplier company is Germany-wide. Virtually any German household can sign up, and EWS works with Germany’s distributors to supply the grid with the electricity and gas its customers are using at any given moment.* The special thing about EWS is that it purchases exclusively non-nuclear renewable energy, and only from entities without investments in nuclear or conventional sources of energy. As a result, it doesn’t buy energy on the European Energy Exchange and instead enters directly into several-year contracts with producers, providing them security. Most of EWS’s power is hydroelectric power from Norway, but EWS hopes to increase its share of purchases from Germany. Additionally, EWS seeks to stimulate the building of new renewable energy capacity as opposed to simply shifting ownership of existing renewable energy resources. Therefore, more than 70% of EWS’s energy comes from production sites less than 6 years old. Finally, EWS tries to buy from co-ops when it can. EWS believes the German Energiewende should promote a decentralized energy system and fundamentally change ownership structures since, as Ms. Gaudian put it, “the wind and sun belong to everyone!”
EWS then uses a portion of its profits called “Sun Cents” to help other communities with the energy transition.** In Germany, this money is used to help other municipalities get the license to run their own grid (example: Titisee-Neustadt, where I vacationed last weekend!). EWS is actually going to court to help change rules that favor monopolists over municipal energy companies in obtaining these licenses. EWS also helps municipalities set up their own demand forecast systems and build strong citizen co-ops so that citizens have input in their local energy system. Sun Cents are additionally used to help communities pre-finance wind turbines, pay extra to small renewable energy producers (such as individual homeowners) who apply for funding, and bolster education programs. EWS is also thinking of funding some PV in Greece, to help with their financial crisis. Finally, Sun Cents are used for aid in developing countries, for instance to help purchase solar lamps in India.
So what does the future of EWS’s decentralized energy revolution look like? Ms. Gaudian pointed out that the system has to be made smarter, but not in the ways I originally thought. For instance, Ms. Gaudian made a very clear distinction between Smart Meters and Smart Grids. Apparently EWS tried Smart Meters and they didn’t work; when consumers had real-time information about when energy was cheapest, they all reacted the same way (e.g. all turning on their washing machines at that time), creating unintentional peaks in demand. Only network operators have the global view necessary to shift customer demand (e.g. by controlling when a particular washing machine turns on), but such control would entail a huge loss of customer autonomy for little gain, which EWS does not support. Instead of just shifting our energy consumption, Ms. Gaudian pointed out, we should fundamentally reduce it. I’d also been aware of some academic research about how we can use electric cars as batteries that can stabilize the electricity system, but EWS is hesitant to support electric cars as well; instead of just shifting from petroleum to electric cars, we should instead be investing in fundamentally changing our transportation system to a public transportation system.
Instead, Ms. Gaudian pointed out that there are plenty of other viable grid management solutions, some of which already exist. EWS currently forecasts its customers’ energy demand days ahead by clustering residential, retail, and wholesale customers. The company has agreements that it can switch off some of its large industrial consumers for a few hours if energy demand is much higher than supply. As we push forward, we can interconnect grids from different regions with different climates, use diverse types of renewable energy (because, e.g., wind and solar complement each other), and have reliable base-loads such as hydroelectric energy or (in some settings) biogas.*** EWS is also currently working on power to gas conversion techniques, so that excess renewable power can be stored in the gas grid. In the future, EWS advocates payments to renewable energy producers that reward not just the amount of production but also the time of production, which will matter more as we move towards using exclusively renewable energy.**** According to Ms. Gaudian and EWS, there are plenty of good options for grid management that don’t entail a loss of consumer autarky.
During my visit, I was extremely impressed with EWS. They have a long-term vision for a decentralized, 100% renewable energy system, and their current policies, innovations, and outreach are well-designed to contribute to the fundamental changes necessary to get there. Towards the end of my visit, Ms. Gaudian asked me if I was thinking of starting my own energy cooperative back in the United States, and I responded: “I just might.”
* This “flexible supplier” structure has been possible since the liberalization of the German electricity market in 1998, which caused Germany’s 4 biggest utilities to “unbundle” (legally separate their electricity supply and grid operation businesses), created an EU electricity market (see: European Energy Exchange), and allowed regional/municipal energy suppliers to enter the German electricity market. [back]
** When a customer signs up for EWS, they pay a low fixed price per month as well as a price per kWh of energy. This per-kWh price incorporates Sun Cents, and customers can actually opt to pay more for their energy use to contribute more Sun Cents. Fun fact: a study in Germany found that even though renewable energy customers pay more per unit of energy than traditional energy customers, their energy bills are lower because they’re better about saving energy! [back]
*** Like Simon Funcke, Ms. Gaudian and EWS also believe that biogas should only be used where it makes sense. EWS sells biogas, but only biogas produced from waste material. It views biogas and co-generation as “transition” technologies, and wants to avoid situations such as when the EEG compensation rate for bio-energy was so high that Germany had to import food because too many food farmers switched to growing energy crops. [back]
**** For instance, rooftop solar panels will generate the most power at different times of the day depending on which direction they face. [back]
(Note: The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)
Bonus: Afterwards, Sebastian and I roamed around Schönau and went to a cafe where I ate some “authentic” Black Forest cake. (Unfortunately, it seemed like a lot of downtown offices and shops were closed; Sebastian suggested that Black Forest tourism has slowed down quite a bit.) We then took a scenic route on the way back from EWS and stopped to tour two wind turbines on a Freiburg hill. Pictures below!