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100% Renewable Energy Town: Güssing

Paul Kando

Güssing (population: 3,811) is a picturesque little town in the South Burgenland region of Austria. It is the administrative center of the Güssing district (population: 27,000), roughly the equivalent of a Maine county seat. Güssing Castle, built in 1157, is the oldest castle in Burgenland and a regional landmark. The lords of Güssing have been Hungarians, since this frontier region used to be part of Hungary. Many wars and changes in jurisdiction took their toll. By the 1980s the district was the poorest in Austria: agricultural, lacking a state of the art transportation infrastructure, and having no significant industry to speak of. Two-thirds of the working population was out of work and young people were moving away. Poor railway access even made energy prices very high. The town could barely afford its annual fossil fuel bill.

Güssing Castle and surrounds
photo credit: Güssing

If Güssing became energy self-sufficient, some of the town leaders reasoned, the $8 million the town paid to outsiders each year for heating oil and other fossil fuels, would, instead, be available to revitalize the local economy. Therefore, to reduce energy use, the town implemented an energy efficiency program, retrofitting all public buildings and equipping all streetlights with energy-efficient bulbs. The program cut the downtown’s energy bills almost in half. Emboldened by this success, the town next adopted a policy to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels from public buildings, justified as a means to keep more money in the local economy.

Six local residents established a district heating system for their homes, fueled by downed tree branches collected from the forest floor. The success of that project led to the construction of many small district heating systems. The mayor, on the lookout for a way to revitalize the town, took notice. Biomass abounds around Güssing, the district has lots of forests. So, by 1996, district heating was expanded to the whole town, with its main plant also generating electricity – the whole system fueled by renewable raw materials gathered from within a five-kilometer radius, subject to sustainable forestry practices.

Then, in 2001, with a grant from the federal government, Güssing installed a biomass gasification plant – the first utility-scale power plant of its kind in the world. The plant runs on wood chips made from selectively harvested trees and waste wood from a nearby flooring factory. It uses steam to separate carbon and hydrogen, then recombines these molecules into a fuel gas for the city’s combined heat and power plant, which produces, on average, 2 megawatts of electricity and 4.5 megawatts of heat, more than enough energy for the town’s needs. The system consumes only one-third of the annual growth of biomass in the area. Another plant converts locally grown rapeseed oil to biodiesel, which is available from the district’s fueling stations.

A 2007 New York Times report identified Güssing as the first community in the European Union to cut carbon emissions by more than 90%. A steady stream of scientists, politicians, and eco-tourists soon followed. One year later, Güssing built its own research institute that focuses on thermal and biological gasification of organic waste materials and production of second-generation fuels. That same year a solar manufacturer opened its doors, producing 850 megawatts of PV modules a year and employing 140 people. Several other photovoltaic and solar thermal companies have relocated to Güssing District as well. Today Güssing is a net energy producer, generating far more energy from renewable sources than it uses. There are more than 30 combined heat and power plants using renewable energy technologies within 10 kilometers of the village.

Visitors abound, bringing tourist euros. As many as 400 come to Güssing each week just to visit the various renewable energy systems. The town also has 60 new employers, 1,500 new jobs, and annual revenues in excess of $17 million from energy sales – all this because of a growing renewable energy sector. The downtown has been rebuilt. Formerly fleeing young people are returning to build a future in Güssing. The goal now is to turn the entire district into an energy-self-sufficient net producer.

Güssing demonstrates that a renewable energy future is not only possible but also economically advantageous. Over 15 other districts are now following Gussing's lead, producing their own electricity, heating, and transportation energy, becoming energy independent.

Why not our Twin Villages? Why not Lincoln County? A local energy committee of citizens is now researching these very questions for Damariscotta and Newcastle. Every town and region has its own need for energy and its unique energy resources to meet that need. We can learn from one-another and be inspired. But we must each develop our own potential. Stay tuned.