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Energy Self-sufficiency
Rural Village Style

by: Paul Kando

Before the Berlin Wall fell, the gently rolling fields and pine forests of Brandenburg State were home to East German collective farms. The town of Treuenbrietzen and within it Feldheim, a rural hamlet of 148 souls, were no exception. What an unlikely place to be attracting visitors as Germany's first energy self-sufficient rural village! Not only does Feldheim get all its electricity and heat from local renewable sources, but it also owns its local energy grid.

Energy Self-sufficient village Feldheim,
Town of Treuenbrietzen
photo credit: Feldheim, Germany

Ever since, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany decided to end its reliance on nuclear power and increase its renewable energy share from the current 20 percent to 35 percent by 2020, Feldheim has been cited as a class example of how ordinary folks can take control of their energy future. The commonsense principles these farmers employed are applicable everywhere: (1)When opportunity knocks, open the door, (2) Work together, (3) Build on local resources, (4) Invest in the future, and (5) Don't take "no" for an answer.

Opportunity came knocking when, in 1994, Michael Raschermann, a young entrepreneur, decided that Feldheim's windy plateau would be an ideal spot for a wind turbine. Villagers soon found they could earn cash by renting their land as turbine sites. Today 43 giant turbines loom over the village's 37 houses and Raschermann heads Energiequelle GmbH, a growing energy company and local employer.

After a thorough assessment of local energy resources and two years of planning, Feldheim built a $ 2.3 million factory to produce biogas for heating. The plant processes corn residues from 1,700 acres of farmland and manure from a 700 sow pig farm. Because the factory also benefits local agriculture, the village was able to qualify for about half of the startup capital from a European Union program. To compensate for fluctuations in wind and biogas supplies, villagers also installed a wood chip furnace fueled by remains of trees felled in the surrounding forests.

With the town producing all of its energy, cutting out the middleman was a natural next step. The town-folk decided to take control of their own power grid. When the area utility refused to sell or lease their local facilities, the villagers did not give up. They joined forces with Energiequelle and built their own smart grid. The project, completed in October 2010, cost each family €3,000 ($3,972), but they now pay 31 percent less than the standard rate for electricity and around 10 per cent less for their heating. The project has also created 30 jobs.

Energiequelle is now working on a facility to store enough electricity to cover two days' demand. This year a visitor center called "New Energy Forum," will begin to offer training to encourage students to enter the energy sector. By opening its own eatery, the center will even bring a restaurant to town.

No one in Feldheim considers wind turbines an eyesore. Progress is seldom the result of smooth sailing, counsels Michael Knape, Treuenbrietzen's 43 year old mayor. Don't take no for an answer Before becoming mayor in 2002 he did not give much thought to energy issues, but recently left the Free Democrats (FDP) over energy policy differences, like the federal government's phasing out of some solar subsidies and other cuts in renewable energy support. Navigating the regulatory maze remains a major hurdle for small towns. Feldheim had to go up against major utility companies and energy regulators in creating its network.

Despite such challenges, towns across Germany are beginning to take energy provision into their own hands, rather than deferring to government or waiting for major industry to act. Even Berliners are now petitioning the city to take over its electric grid from the giant multinational utility Vattenfall when its contract runs out in 2014. They also want the city to move toward a more eco-friendly energy mix. About 300 German villages are now working on comprehensive energy projects, at least 60 of them comparable to Feldheim's. Each one represents a unique combination of solutions.

Wind power may not be the best option for a Midcoast Maine village, but we have plenty of sunshine and a lot of biogas could be generated from sewage and organic waste now we pay to dispose of. Rooftop photovoltaics might be an excellent option for power generation and geothermal earth tubes a good resource for space and water heating and summer cooling. Feldheim is no blueprint, but it is surely an inspiration: if 37 farm families could do it, why not an energy-independent Fill-in-the-blank, ME 045..?