Ursula Sladek is bringing decentralized, sustainably-produced energy to more than 100,000 customers all over Germany with her cooperatively-owned power company. Learn more about her innovative approach to energy production and delivery in the Q&A below.
Q. You have said that you were first inspired to find an alternative to nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster. How exactly did the disaster impact you and your family?
A. Chernobyl is far away from my community but the nuclear clouds made their way to us. Everywhere was polluted, the sandboxes where the children play, we couldn't eat things from the garden... At first we thought that the government would do something or that the power companies would change their minds about nuclear power, but nobody did anything. That's when we realized we had to do it ourselves and formed a group, calling ourselves Parents for a Nuclear Free Future.
Q. What did Parents for a Nuclear Free Future do exactly?
A. We started on the consumer side, looking at our bills to see how we could save energy. We organized a contest with the whole town competing to save the most energy – it lasted eight years in the end. People of the town got to know a lot about energy saving. There was a journalist who documented the town and said that he never saw such a little town where an old woman on the street could explain what a co-generator was!
The second thing was that we wanted to reactivate renewable power plants – there were many hydro power plants in the Black Forest that were no longer working. We went to the government and they told us there was no money for this. But we learned that if the project is good you will find the money. Ordinary people wanted to give money to our project rather than to the banks. With this project you can take your child to see the windmill to show them where your money is and how it's working for a better future.
Q. How did Parents for a Nuclear Free Future evolve into power company EWS?
A. The German electricity market was monopolized by KWR before we got started. The grid owners are given a license from the local government every 20 years and then the owner can do what they want since they have the license. German electricity comes primarily from coal (55%), nuclear (25%) and the rest is now renewable energy. At the time when we started it was very small – maybe only 2-3% renewable. At the time, the grid owner didn't want there to be any renewable energy – they wanted to sell their own energy and wanted the people to use as much as possible. They didn't want solar energy on the roofs of people's houses since that would take away from profits.
So the only way to make a change was to become a grid owner ourselves. This seemed like a crazy idea since none of us knew how to run an electricity company. It took us 10 years to realize our vision and there were many obstacles. One major obstacle was that KWR fixed the price of the grid to nearly double what it was worth, but we surprised them by raising the money, through investment but also many donations.
Q. Is there support from the German government for renewable energy?
A. In 1991 a law was implemented that obliged the power suppliers to take renewable energy into their girds and pay something for it. In 2000 came the renewable energy act that made the grid owners do even more – not only did they have to take the energy but they were now told what they had to pay for it. This was the beginning of the new renewable energy plants – hydro, solar, wind – you could now invest in these things and individuals could feed back into this grid as well. This new act changed power in Germany and now there is hope that Germany might someday run on 100% renewable energy.
Q. Any advice for communities in the U.S. who want to emulate what you've accomplished in Schönau?
A.It's important for people to realize they can make the change themselves. They can start small – install a windmill together. And then, on a larger scale, take back the grids from large power suppliers. This can be done everywhere and we want to motivate the people. Schönau shows people can do great things together and should believe in themselves.