Global Observer

College students take on one of Germany's dirtiest power grids: Berlin's

College students take on one of Germany's dirtiest power grids: Berlin's

Posting in Energy | From Issue 11 February 17 & 24, 2014

BERLIN — How does a grassroots movement go about de-coaling a billion-dollar power infrastructure?

BERLIN — By 2011, then-college students Arwen Colell and Louise Neumann-Cosel had long been suspect of the energy company that both supplies Berlin with electricity and runs its power grid.

Though Swedish energy giant Vattenfall had grown the grid into one of the world’s most reliable power infrastructures, Berlin had also become one of Germany’s dirtiest, running heavy on brown coal from the surrounding Brandenburg region.

So when word spread that control of the grid would go up for bid in 2014, the two friends saw an opportunity they couldn’t pass up: They would find a way to buy back the German capital’s power infrastructure from private hands, and lay the foundation for a rapid transition to renewable energy in the city.

It was a course that would pit them against politicians and powerful corporations alike — but not without rousting thousands of apathetic Berliners from their seats to reclaim the conversation about Berlin’s role in Germany’s Energiewende — the transition to renewable energy. Though more than 25 percent of Germany's energy is produced from renewable resources, output and consumption vary from state to state. City-states such as Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen consume some of the lowest proportions of renewable energy at an average of 3.5 percent, whereas the "new" or former East German states come out on top in percentage of renewable energy consumption.

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 Arwen Colell

"It was a private idea at first,” said Colell of her and Neumann-Cosel’s early discussions during bike rides through the city. “But the more we spoke with people from previous initiatives in other cities, the more we knew this needed to happen.”

Right away, Colell and Neumann-Cosel sought advice from former initiative leaders. Following the devastating Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986, a small anti-nuclear energy initiative in Germany’s Black Forest had grown so influential, that by 1996 it succeeded in buying its local power grid back from the private operators unwilling to transition away from atomic energy. 

Nicknamed the “Power Rebels,” this famous group of parent-activists, who now run the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau, or Schönau Electric Works, have become role models for a series of recent movements to "reclaim" municipal power grids. As contracts from the privatization of the German energy market in the late 1990s approach their expiry dates, campaigners in Berlin, Hamburg and the town of Oldenburg have spent more than two years rallying for public control of their grids — a battle Hamburg just won: the city will pay Vattenfall 550 million euros to reassume control of its power infrastructure.

Confidants among the "Power Rebels" reassured Colell and Neumann-Cosel that they wouldn’t have to succeed in buying the grid to have a meaningful impact — to inspire interest in the fate of public energy infrastructure would be huge.

So in December 2011, Colell and Neumann-Cosel founded the BürgerEnergie (People’s Energy) initiative. By lobbying the Berlin Senate, promoting fair competition, and hosting monthly events on Germany's energy transition, the organization had succeeded in registering some 2,000 members and generating an impressive eight million euros for BürgerEnergie’s bid within 18 months of launching. 

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 Louise Neumann-Cosel

Though the grid’s value is estimated to be upwards of a billion euros, the highest bidder will not necessarily win the concession, allowing BürgerEnergie to remain a serious contender in the bidding process. 

"Berlin is what you call an 'energy trough'," Hannes Stefan Hönemann, spokesperson for Berlin's current grid operator and Vattenfall subsidiary Stromnetz Berlin, said. "There’s not enough room around Berlin for it to be exclusively powered by renewable energy, which is why Vattenfall invested in the switch to biomasse at the Moabit plant, for example.”

The company's power plant in the Moabit area of Berlin transitioned to the burning of wood chips for 40 percent of its production capacity in late 2013 — a single shift that increased the total percentage of renewable energy production in Berlin from two to four percent. Vattenfall is technically the largest single producer of green energy in the city — though the region is also served by about 350 other smaller power providers.

Vattenfall also argues that no communal or public entity will be able to develop and maintain the grid at the standard it and Stromnetz Berlin have for the past 20 years. "We’re on our way to the smartest grid ever,” said Hönemann. 

Stromnetz — whose parent company Vattenfall belongs to the Swedish government — is investing some 300 million euros ($409 million) in the development of what it calls an "intelligent control system,” or smart grid, for Berlin. The step-by-step replacement of old lines throughout the city in preparation for 2,200 intelligent customer meters and grid control points would save on costs for both power suppliers and consumers — but most of all it would pave the way to "cleaning" the city's energy supply and reducing its carbon emissions. Stromnetz Berlin says it plans to invest a total of 1.4 billion euros in Berlin’s energy infrastructure by 2023.

“Everybody at the table agrees that we need a smart grid,” Dr. Stefan Taschner of EnergieTisch, a sister initiative to BürgerEnergie, said. “We just don’t trust an entity like Vattenfall to get there fast enough.” 

Dr. Taschner has worked with BürgerEnergie to educate the public on the importance of taking back Berlin’s grid — although EnergieTisch has focused on lobbying the city to purchase the grid, rather than collecting funds from citizens for a communal takeover. Taschner and Colell disagree on whether the city government or a citizen-run co-operative should advise the grid operator at a strategic level. But both say that neither they, nor the citizens of Berlin, are interested in a large, profit-driven company retaining its monopoly over Berlin’s public utilities.

“We’re not against companies making money,” Colell, who has since graduated university and begun work with a Berlin startup, said. "But we do think that the money that is made from grid operations should be part of local value creation — and what better way to ensure this than with direct participation?"

Though Colell says BürgerEnergie has turned its focus to growing membership, raising awareness and fostering public debate, she, Taschner and their colleagues still anxiously await the arrival of a letter from the Berlin Senate opening the call for proposals from serious bidders. Meanwhile, each competitor continues to lobby concession decision makers along with the public until a decision falls — likely no sooner than January 2015. 

Photos: BürgerEnergie / Michael Paul/paulbewegt.de

Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure