The green dream in some German villages would not come true without the federal support.
Neuerkirch and Külz are two small villages in Western Germany. Neuerkirch has some 300 inhabitants, Külz 500. And yet, they feel a part of something bigger that goes even beyond Germany’s energy transition, the Energiewende.
We are happy that we don’t have to be supplied by Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia, mayor of Neuerkirch Volker Wichter told journalists at a press trip funded by the German government’s European Climate Initiative.
Neuerkirch and Külz abandoned the old fossil fuel heating system and switched to a 100-percent renewable heating. A biomass plant supplies 75 percent of the energy, a solar thermal plant provides for the rest. Only a few homes are not connected to the central system.
The two villages lie in the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which calls itself “pioneer” of Energiewende. Apart from the biomass and solar plants, the region is typical for wind turbines. Local communities receive hundreds of thousands of euros annually for leasing their land to the turbines. The operators can afford to pay thanks to the feed-in tariff or another form of national subsidy.
However, the local mayors repeat: There would be no energy transition without us, we are the Energiewende.
Benefits must be transparent
Toni Christ is former mayor of Mastershausen of 1,000 inhabitants. He says that 64 million euros were invested in renewable power on the territory of the village located in the rural area of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Investors built 14 wind turbines for 50 million euros and a couple of solar power plants for 11 million. The new grid connections cost them 3 million.
Based on 25-year contracts, the village receives at least 260,000 euros per year for the land lease. The revenue can climb up to 350,000 depending on how strong the wind blows and the sun shines.
Christ had to fight hard to convince people that wind turbines will not impact the environment. He discussed the issue with inhabitants before investment decisions were made. When people were concerned by possible harms to the bird population or by the noise of the turbines, he brought in experts who reassured them.
But money and transparency were the key arguments. “The high acceptance of the turbines was based on people knowing what we do with the money,” Christ told journalists. “We were transparent about everything.”
This is grass-roots democracy
Mastershausen has used the revenue to fund the construction of a fast Internet network, roads, playgrounds and a library. The townhall gives out money to families with new-borns. And it funds, of course, the local energy transition via subsidies for house insulation and public transport.
“We even have English and Dutch families moving in,” Christ rejoices adding that thanks to the Internet and improved transport, working people can do home office.
The wind turbines dominate the skyline. When the issue of aesthetics is raised, former president of the local Rhein-Hunsrück District, Bertram Fleck, has a clear response: “An ugly view? That is a question of values. Some people like looking at wind turbines, because they represent the Energiewende.”
The empowered local communities represent “the grass-roos democracy,” both men agree.
True, the energy transition would not be possible without the feed-in tariffs, for which the operators sell their power to the regional grid. On the other hand, the wind turbines produce much more energy than the village needs. With backup sources, it could be self-sufficient.
Return on investment in 10 years
Some German communities do own renewable power plants. Wolfhagen in the neighbouring federal state of Hesse owns a 10-MW photovoltaic power plant, the largest in the Bundesland, and a 12-MW wind park. There is also hydropower.
Wolfhagen’s power sources have been 100-percent renewable since 2014. They are connected to the regional grid, which supplies most of the 13,500 inhabitants, and backs up the weather-dependent renewables. But city is still a net electricity exporter on the annual basis.
The operator, Wolfhagen municipal utility (Stadtwerke), is owned at 75 percent by the city and at 25 percent by a local cooperative. “Energiewende functions only if people are involved. That is why we this cooperative works,” Markus Huntzinger from Stadtwerke Wolfhagen explains.
Return on investment is not a concern. Huntzinger says that the investment into the wind turbines will be recovered in 10 years thanks to the electricity trader the utility hired. The turbines can operate for another ten years.
According to Benjamin Böhme from the development and service company Windtest Grevenbroich, one megawatt of onshore wind energy requires an investment worth 1.5 million euros. It takes two to five years to build a turbine and go through the whole regulatory process.
Dark doldrums are not the worst
Windtest has its testing facility for a new generation of wind turbines in the federal state of North-Rhine-Westphalia. There, the landscape is dominated also by Germany’s largest and dirtiest lignite power plant, Neurath.
It is one of these, which supply electricity to the Bundesland on its southern border – Rheinland-Palatinate. The State Secretary at Rheinland-Palatinate’s Ministry of Environment Thomas Griese admits that the “pioneer” state continues to depend on electricity imports for 30 percent of its consumption.
But 47 percent of electricity produced in Rheinland-Palatinate is renewable. Griese hopes that in 2030 the green dream of 100-percent renewable electricity will come true on the state level. At least this is the plan.
Griese says there are solutions for situations, which he calls the “dark doldrums”, when the wind is not blowing and the sun shining: power-to-gas, demand-side management, pumped storage, batteries, expansion of the grid over weather zones and offshore wind parks as a backup power.
He seems to be more concerned by a different issue. There is no coal power in Rheinland-Palatinate, but there is nuclear power. “Dismantling a nuclear power plant is very expensive. It will last for decades. Fortunately, we have only one,” Griese smiles.