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“Dirigo” Means Local Leadership

Paul Kando

For something new to happen, a few people must always go first. The others will come afterward observes Ursula Sladek, president of EWS, the Electric Power Company of Schönau im Schwarzwald. I was reminded of Sladek at a recent celebration at the Damariscotta River Grill. Ten years ago last month Damariscotta voted to prevent big box stores from locating here. The decision saved our downtown. The effort was lead by two tireless young women, Jenny Mayher and Eleanor Kinney.

State Seal of Maine
photo credit: Wikipedia

Schönau, like Danariscotta is a picturesque town of about 2,500 residents. Its narrow streets date back to the 12th century. Beyond the village dairy cattle graze on postcard-perfect mountain pastures. The modern touch is thousands of rooftop solar panels, small, grid-connected, resident-owned power plants that generate more electricity on sunny days than Schönau’s people consume.

How did these panels end up here, one of Germany’s most conservative regions, three long decades ago? Back in 1986 Ursula Sladek was a young schoolteacher nursing a broken leg suffered in a skiing accident, when she heard the news about an explosion at a Soviet nuclear power plant. Nothing to worry about, the authorities claimed, but the next day radioactive particles from Chernobyl began falling on Schönau and residents were warned to stay indoors.

That’s when Sladek and a few neighbors decided against relying on nuclear power any longer. They asked their power company to divest from nuclear. It refused. Sladek’s group realized that they had to take matters into their own hands. They spent the next several years studying power generation and the electric grid, which in Germany, like the U.S., was designed over a century ago around a few large power plants. That centralized system, with power flowing in one direction from plant to user, worked fine, as long as there was a dependable supply of electricity to meet demand at any given moment.

Sladek and friends proposed rooftop solar, a decentralized system, with electricity flowing in two directions, from many small generators into the grid, and from the grid to consumers. The new system had to be flexible enough to handle wildly fluctuating power loads.

Regulations had to be modified to accommodate this decentralized system. Pushing for citizen-produced “BürgerEnergie” meant challenging the business mindset of powerful electric utilities and the need to build powerful alliances. The “power rebels of Schönau” raised $2.4 million to buy the area grid and run it themselves. The owners wanted $5.2 million. A judge set the fair market value at $2.2 million.

It took ten years to establish the town’s local network of solar panels and small hydroelectric dams, which make up EWS’s generating capacity. It supplies more than enough green power for the entire village. But that was only the beginning. Schönau’s pint-sized initiative helped inspire legislators in Berlin to enact EEG, Germany’s National Energy Act of 2000. Today 30% of the country’s energy supply is renewable, and it is on track to 100% by mid-century.

There is a lesson for us in here somewhere