With Citizen Buy-in, German Village Generates 5X Renewable Energy It Needs

Wildpoldsried, Germany home solar panels

The first in a series of on-site reports on little-known energy and climate initiatives across parts of Western Europe.

WILDPOLDSRIED, GERMANY — Renewable energy projects in the U.S. often face fierce citizen opposition — perhaps most famously, for example, that involving the Cape Wind project off the shore of Massachusetts.

But here in Wildpoldsried, a village of 2,615 inhabitants about 70 miles southwest of Munich, leaders have found a way to win citizen buy-in: let them invest in renewables projects themselves.

The village now generates five times more energy for electricity and heating than it needs. It does so from a mix of renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydroelectricity, geothermal, and biogas. Villagers sell the excess energy, enough to earn about €6 million ($7.8 million) a year. They have also reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 125 percent.

Wildpoldsried, Germany homes
Wildpoldsried lies in Bavaria, a German state about the size of West Virginia. The state has more installed photovoltaic capacity than the entire United States. Photos: Sara Peach

The village’s rush for renewables began in 1998 when community leaders spent a weekend brainstorming goals for the future of Wildpoldsried, said deputy mayor Günter Mögele. But the goal to invest in renewables did not earn immediate and unanimous support from citizens.

“We are a totally normal village, and you always have opponents, especially when you start,” Mögele said.

Wildpoldsried is a conservative, tradition-oriented village in the German state of Bavaria, known for milk and cheese production. “Our church is still in the middle of the village,” Mögele said, referring to a German idiom.

But village leaders and activists won acceptance for renewables by pursuing small-scale projects owned by locals. Only citizens of Wildpoldsried are allowed to invest in the village’s wind turbines, despite interest from outside investors. So far, about 300 citizens have bought into the turbines.

Wildpoldsried, Germany photo
The community is planning to build 10 new wind turbines in collaboration with neighboring villages.

Other renewable projects also lie in local hands. Thirty-seven percent of roofs in the village have solar panels, and local dairy farmers own the village’s biogas plants.

German law encourages people to generate renewable energy by giving individuals the right to feed power to the grid. Until recently, the law had guaranteed large subsidies to renewable generators.

Mögele said that without those subsidies, most of Wildpoldsried’s renewable projects would not have been financially feasible. But investment in renewables, he said, “makes the whole village a little bit richer.”

Wildpoldsried, Germany photo
Thirty-seven percent of roofs in Wildpoldsried hold solar panels.

At the village gym, the sale of excess electricity from rooftop solar panels pays for the cost of building maintenance. Investment in the wind turbines, Mögele said, offers a higher rate of interest than banks.

Because of its success in renewable energy, the village now receives about 100 visiting groups each year from countries all over the world. The mayor of Fukushima, Japan, has visited twice.

“The participation of citizens — that, for me, is the secret,” Mögele said. “Whenever you have foreign investors or big companies, it’s not so easy. People will not accept it. Whenever they can participate by themselves, it’s much easier, and then they can take advantage, and after some years, well, they can also make some money.”

For additional information on the project, visit German Village Achieves Energy Independence…And Then Some.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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11 Responses to With Citizen Buy-in, German Village Generates 5X Renewable Energy It Needs

  1. ed maibach says:

    Sara,
    This is a truly inspiring piece of new…thank you. Keep it coming, please.
    Ed Maibach

  2. Marlin R. Turby says:

    That is very impressive that they are generating 5x the demand, good for them ! The technology is clearly present for renewables. Germany isn’t exactly the sunniest of places either but they are such a progressive bunch over there, they made it work anyway.

    The economic incentives in America are not so present. There are some strange things in renewable markets that do raise many flags. However the distinction should be made that the technology on renewables is sound and improving, in other words, yes they actually work and generate clean, reliable electricity. The business end of some, certainly not all, renewables investment strategies, is a bit shady…no pun intended.

    It is a sad day when the business aspect of renewables spoils the possibility of renewables, particularly when we need to get off the carbon and onto sustainable means of electrical generation.

    Wind energy is solar energy and photovoltaics,(solar panels) are certainly solar as well. Hydroelectric is solar too, it requires the sun to evaporate water and physically lift it into the air then transport it to another region and then release it.

    Imagine how exhausting it would be to do that manually…hauling all that water up a ladder, a mile into the sky, one bucket at a time ! I need a nap just thinking about it ! That’s a lot of energy !

    Geothermal is not solar…sorry Mr. Sun no credit for that one.

    Solar energy is responsible all life processes, all of the energy on this planet, (ok except for geothermal, plate tectonics, the moving about of continents, mountain building etc. and some chemical upwelling in the Pacific Ocean that feeds plankton and some hungry fish).

    Regardless, “solar energy” invokes some nasty comments from time to time.

    Now why is that ? Coal is solar energy, methane is solar energy and crude oil is solar energy. Solar energy that the earth intercepted, over hundreds of millions of years, was converted into potential chemical energy, what we today call “fossil fuels” and conveniently warehoused for our retrieval. Of course, not intentionally warehoused for us…

    Energy is amazing stuff, being converted from one form to another, going to sleep in rocks for eons of time, then the alarm clock rings, you’re woken from deep slumbers, go through some combustion process, do your physical work, then find yourself floating in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas like CO2, capable of capturing some long wave infrared energy that would normally escape to outer space, then warming the atmosphere and oceans with it, raise their levels by exciting the molecular activity, melt glaciers and polar caps, thaw the tundra, expand deserts, convince species to migrate, mess with the jet stream,Hadley Cells, thermohaline circulations, phew !!! That’s a lot of responsibility…being energy.

    Energy ! It’s not just a job…it’s an adventure!

    Carbon makes this possible. So when someone shuns solar energy and claims fossil fuels are better don’t forget to remind them that fossil fuels are solar energy too !

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “They have also reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 125 percent.”

    ?

    “Mögele said that without those subsidies, most of Wildpoldsried’s renewable projects would not have been financially feasible.”

    Ah!

  4. Bob Koss says:

    What kind of math is the author using? She says they reduced carbon emissions by 125%. If I drink 100% of a glass of water I have none left. It isn’t possible to reduce 100% of something by 125%.

    In this sentence we find the key to their success.
    She writes: “Mögele said that without those subsidies, most of Wildpoldsried’s renewable projects would not have been financially feasible.”

    I suspect party time will be coming to end. The other citizens of the country are becoming increasingly irate at having to pay such exorbitant prices for electricity due to subsidizing renewables. If they were cost effective they wouldn’t need subsidies.

    • John says:

      Yes, I mean, after all, the fossil fuel industry receives no tax breaks, giveaways, favorable-rate loans, price controls…No that NEVER happens.

    • Susanb says:

      bob koss – the point of renewable means once systems are set up to catch FREE energy from the sun, wind, etc. they wont require much more energy to maintain them which results in a net gain. Compare that with the total cost of the extraction of non-renewable energies such as oil, coal which require more energy to produce than they yield. Those industries yield profits for corporations that receive HUGE subsidies from governments with little benefit going to communities other than the promise of jobs. As supplies of NON-renewables dwindle and it becomes increasingly costly for the companies and the environment, the practicality of small scale renewable energy projects will become more evident.

  5. Paul Quigg says:

    I would like to know how much energy was derived from the various sources. Germanys electrical costs are three times ours to finance their Renewable Energy Resources Act which diverts a major portion of the funds to solarvoltaic, with very little return. This towns renewable effort is way over the top. A comprehensive financial analysis would be very interesting.

  6. Marlin R. Turby says:

    Thank you Susan for pointing out that the “available” energy of fossil fuels is finite Because it is finite AND we are continually harvesting them, the quantity can only diminish. Economically that translates into an inevitable supply and demand scenario…aka…inflation. Furthermore as Susan states, the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction continually increases as the supply diminishes.

    Consider the tar sands/Keystone XL Pipeline and methane’s/fracking industries. Each are energy/resource intense, meaning that it requires an ever increasing amount of energy and natural resources to extract a source of energy whose supply is shrinking. It is a more complex task of extraction.

    Knowing this, the fossil fuel industry literally buys the government so they can rewrite the laws thus insulating themselves from any and all liability. Fracking is a nightmare unfolding, yet we’re told this is, “energy independence”. The Haliburton Loophole is nice example of this.

    John made mention of this little cozy relationship between the fossil fuel industry and government.

    As fossil fuel supplies dwindle in the face of international competition, not only will prices rise, but so will tensions…Can we say “war”?

    All this for something that will ultimately be entirely depleted. Fossil fuels will be gone, we will have pushed the climate over the edge, wrecked water supplies, induced conditions of mass extinctions and we will have achieved sainthood at devising new ways of killing one another. That’s where the road of fossil fuels leads…bottom line.

    Fossil fuels are solar energy captured over unthinkable spans of time. The energy source for fossil fuels was our local star, the sun, a thermonuclear reaction that essentially fuses 2 hydrogen atoms together forming the second element on the period table…helium.

    Ok, so the sun, let’s see… is it possible to convert the energy from the sun directly into a useable and easily distributable form ?

    Yes..electricity is a form of energy that can be generated from a variety of processes that convert solar energy to electrical energy.

    Really ?

    Yes, the wind blows because the energy of the sun heats the earth unequally as it rotates on its’ axis and orbits the sun. Windmills can convert energy this in 3 steps… solar energy… wind energy…electrical energy.

    Solar energy can be directly converted to electrical energy through photovoltaics which is has no moving parts and is absolutely silent, except for a slight hum from the inverter. A recent development in inverter technology is microinverters. Instead of having one inverter,(converts dc electricity to ac) for an array of solar panels, now each solar panel has a small inverter built into it. This reduces and simplifies installation materials and labor which makes it more affordable. Plus it has software that monitors the output of each solar panel 24/7. You can view your solar system from any where in the world, in real time, see the output in watts of each individual panel on your roof or lawn right on a computer or droid phone. The image is the actual grid of solar panels in your array. Inside each rectangle is a number which is the watts being generated at that time from that panel. They can be added together, compared month to month, seasonally, time of day, etc.

    The movement of water be it hydro, tidal, or wave is yet another source of energy and like the wind, the force of moving water can be converted to electrical energy.

    Is the sun a finite supply of energy ?

    Yes.

    Oh…how long will it last until it runs out of fuel for us ?

    Not sure…is it billions or trillions of years ?

    And how long will fossil fuels last us ?

    Oh… maybe 100 years or so.

    Is that why they call it “renewable energy” because it lasts so long ?

    Bingo.

    • Nullius in Verba says:

      Fossil fuels, at the current rate of use, would last around 5000 years. Although it is about as unlikely that we will still be using it in a hundred years time as that the horse power used at the end of the 19th century would still be in use at the end of the 20th. It’ll happen anyway. It doesn’t need pushing from politics.

      The most natural next step would be nuclear. Fast breeders with current technology would run out of fuel resources in about 100,000 years.

  7. Marlin R. Turby says:

    Corrections previous reply:
    1. End of 7th paragraph: period table…change to “Periodic Table”
    2. 11th paragraph: energy this…change to “this energy”

  8. Excellent. I wish ,we in India adopt this.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India