For Ursula Sladek, a mother of five from the tiny community of Schönau in Germany’s Black Forest region, the Chernobyl disaster served as a serious wake-up call about the dangers of nuclear energy. She and her neighbors were alarmed by reports about radioactive residue detected on playgrounds, backyard gardens, and farmland in Schönau. Suddenly, it was unsafe for Sladek to go about her normal routine of eating locally grown foods and sending her children outside to play.
In response, Sladek, her husband, and a small group of parents began researching the energy industry in Germany to see if there was a way to limit their community’s dependence on nuclear power. They found that power companies were not allowing citizens to have a say in energy production decisions. Chernobyl proved that though nuclear energy could be called “green” by some standards, the safety risks associated with it were cause for deep concern. Sladek also knew that nuclear energy was not the only option. Thus, the group began what would become a 10-year project to take over the local grid, and in a second step, allow people all over Germany to choose safe, reliable, sustainably produced energy. This project would transform Sladek from a small-town parent trained to be a schoolteacher into the founder and president of one of Europe’s first cooperatively owned green energy companies.
In the more than two decades since Sladek began working for clean and safe energy in Germany, she has built a company that now provides power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses throughout the country, including Germany’s best-known chocolate factory, which produces the popular Ritter Sport candy for export all over the world.
In the beginning, Sladek and her partners formed Parents for a Nuclear Free Future, and initiated a campaign in the Black Forest region to encourage energy efficiency. This prompted the public in the tightly knit area to pay attention to its energy consumption and begin thinking more critically about how energy was produced. As the campaign gained traction and began leading to real reductions in energy consumption, Sladek saw that people were committed to a sustainable energy future. With that support, she and her partners set out to take on the local power grid operator and bring energy ownership back to the community.
The power company KWR’s license to operate the Schönau grid was up for renewal by the local government in 1991, and Sladek and her partners developed a nation-wide campaign to raise funds and support for her group to take over. The campaign led to two separate votes by the local people in favor of allowing Sladek’s group to manage the grid. Raising more than 6 million deutschmarks (equivalent to 3 million Euros) to purchase the grid from KWR through their national campaign, Sladek and her partners became energy entrepreneurs practically overnight, setting up their cooperative company, Schönau Power Supply (EWS), in order to operate as an energy provider. By 1997, Sladek’s company was in control of the Schönau grid. She took on the role of president and continues to lead the company today.
From the beginning, Sladek’s EWS set out to help create a more sustainable energy future for Germany by utilizing and providing financial support for decentralized renewable power facilities, including solar installations, cogeneration units that both heat and power homes, small hydroelectric projects, as well as wind power and biomass. EWS still focuses on energy efficiency, incentivizing all of its customers to take steps to reduce their overall energy consumption. This is where EWS differs considerably from traditional energy companies. Though German regulations required EWS to incorporate in order to claim ownership of a power grid, the company operates more like a nonprofit that prioritizes the environmental and social benefits of its work rather than its profits. The company has 1,000 cooperative owners who receive small dividends each year, while the majority of the company’s profits go into investments for more renewable energy production facilities and outreach efforts that have helped several other towns in Germany set up their own community-owned energy companies. To date, the company has grown annually, with total sales reaching 67 million Euros in 2009.
The German government is now aligned with EWS’s sustainability ideals, with a goal of deriving 100% of the country’s power from renewable sources by 2050. EWS has grown thanks to growing public support for renewable energy in Germany, and the subsequent measures taken by the government, which has encouraged investment in renewable energy projects throughout the country.
Sladek has addressed climate change and energy security from the grassroots level, illustrating how social entrepreneurship and environmental stewardship can come together to tackle two of the world’s most urgent challenges. She is now working to reach 1 million customers by 2015.