Courtesy: Geographical

From primary school teacher to renewable-energy revolutionary, Ursula Sladek took the power out of the hands of the energy giants and gave it to the people of Schönau in the Black Forest. Olivia Edward tells her story.

Since the nuclear disaster in Japan, the staff at Ursula Sladek’s renewable electricity company have been busier than ever before. ‘We’re receiving so many enquiries,’ she says. ‘My staff would have to work 24 hours a day in order to answer them all.’

She’s sympathetic but she can’t quite understand why it has taken people so long to doubt the safety of nuclear power. Like many others, she became concerned about atomic energy after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. While the fire crews were battling to contain the blaze at the plant, Sladek was living a quiet life about 2,000 kilometres away in the small Black Forest town of Schönau.

A primary school teacher by training, she had married a local GP and was raising their five children. ‘I have to confess, we weren’t very green,’ says Sladek. ‘Life was very busy and there were always so many questions to be answered. We just sort of got through the day. I didn’t have time to think about anything else.’

That changed when the cloud of radioactive dust drifted over Schönau. ‘We had to stay indoors,’ says Sladek. ‘We couldn’t let the children play in the sandpit or eat certain foods. The radiation levels were really very high.’ The situation stabilised after a few weeks, and ‘life normalised after a few months – you didn’t think about the dangers all the time’. But, she admits, her world had been shaken.

To harness their anxieties, Ursula and her husband formed Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. At first, their ambitions were modest. They hoped to encourage local people to reduce their energy consumption and to convince their energy supplier, KWR – which was providing nuclear-generated electricity at the time – to become greener.

But when KWR’s contract came up for renewal and it refused to add some green clauses to its contract to supply energy, Sladek was shocked. ‘They were so arrogant,’ she says, a hint of incredulity still lingering in her tone. It was at that point she realised that she needed to set up her own energy company, ‘a citizens company, where ecological considerations came first’. But, time was against her.

KWR’s contract wasn’t up for renewal for another four years but it had just offered the local government 100,000 Deutsche marks to secure its position for the future. Sladek knew that if there was any chance of her renewable-energy company becoming a reality, she needed to match this payment. Her team would then have four years to build up a credible rival company.

They scraped together the initial payment and then began trying to raise the funds required to buy the licence to operate the power grid from KWR. Estimating the value of the grid at DM4million, they set themselves up as a co-operative and sold shares to people in the town and elsewhere in Germany. ‘People thought it was a wonderful project,’ says Sladek. ‘They wanted to be part of it.’

After winning two local referendums on who should supply the town’s electricity, Sladek looked set to take over the grid, but then KWR raised the sale price to DM8.7million. It looked as though the project was finished. Sladek knew that the price was unfair, but she didn’t want to take KWR to court and get entangled in a decade-long wrangle while the company continued to deal in nuclear-generated energy. ‘That was my darkest hour,’ she says. ‘I thought that was the end of the story.’

Unable to sell further shares without overvaluing the company, Sladek put out an appeal for donations as a last resort. Incredibly, within six weeks, she had raised DM1million, and the money continued to flood in. ‘I learnt so many wonderful things during that time,’ she says. ‘Now I believe anything is possible.’

She went back to KWR and negotiated the price down to DM5.8million, bought the grid, and on 1 July 1997, her company, EWS, began supplying energy to the people of Schönau.

Energy rebel
Fifteen years later, Sladek is now a grandmother of seven and EWS is a collectively owned energy company that generates all of its electricity from renewable sources – largely small hydropower plants on the lush region’s many rivers, but also wind turbines and solar panels. The company’s shareholders receive regular dividends, while its profits are ploughed into new renewables projects and helping other communities make the change.

Meanwhile, its own electricity output and business model continue to be an inspiration. Initially providing one million kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy to 1,700 local customers, today EWS provides more than 400 million kWh to 100,000-plus customers throughout Germany. The aim is for the company to sign up its millionth customer within the next four years.

But back in the 1990s, Sladek’s fight with KWR wasn’t over. She knew that she had been overcharged and that she needed to get that money back – not simply for her own personal satisfaction but because EWS needed to set a precedent to inspire others to follow its lead. ‘It’s always the same pattern,’ says Sladek. ‘A community wants to take over its local grid and put the power supply in its own hands but the big power company comes up with some fantastic figure it wants for the grid and the local councillors feel that it’s too expensive and therefore not possible.’

It took seven years to claw the money back, but eventually a German court ruled that the grid was only worth DM3.5million and KWR was forced to refund the difference, with interest. ‘It’s such an important example,’ says Sladek. ‘Now, when a community comes to us and tells us that their local power supplier is saying that it will sell the grid to them for DM10million, we’re able to tell them that it’s probably only worth about half that.’

Sladek’s achievements have been recognised by Ashoka, an association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, which made her a senior fellow in 2008. The group’s CEO, Bill Drayton, describes her as ‘an energy rebel with remarkable foresight. Twenty five years ago, she sparked a movement for green, decentralised energy, owned by the citizens themselves. Today, her innovation is more relevant than ever.’ And earlier this year, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, viewed by many as the environmental equivalent of a Nobel.

No to nuclear
Back at home, she’s thrilled about the German government’s decision to abandon nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and hopes that it will inspire other countries to do the same. Although many environmentalists now believe that atomic energy is our best bet for fighting global warming, Sladek isn’t convinced. ‘The solution to climate change isn’t nuclear power; the solution is renewable energy,’ she says. ‘And the quicker you get started, the better.

‘Using nuclear power actually hinders the introduction of renewable energy because nuclear is not a good partner for renewables,’ she continues. ‘With energy sources such as wind, you need a partner that is very, very flexible, that can react quickly. That’s not nuclear power because nuclear power stations aren’t built to be shut down.’

A recent feasibility report suggested that Germany’s energy could be entirely renewably sourced by 2050. For its part, the German government has said that it would like to see more than 80 per cent of the country’s electricity generated from renewables by then. This solid backing has already created a renewables sector that employs around 370,000 people.

So while Sladek has apparently revolutionised the German energy market, how has her journey changed her? ‘Before I started this work I was very shy,’ she says. ‘I could not talk in public. For my very first speech, I had to write it all down, and my hands were trembling as I held my papers. But now, I can give a speech without any notes and I’m not afraid of anyone any more, because I’ve learnt so much about energy and electricity that I can answer nearly any question. And perhaps the biggest lesson I have learnt is that what I am doing is important.’

She pauses, then continues, softly but emphatically: ‘And that gives me strength.’

Britain’s renewable future
‘Last year, Germany installed more renewables than Britain has installed in the last decade,’ says Alan Simpson, Friends of the Earth’s renewable energy and climate change adviser. ‘We’re so far behind in terms of renewables that it’s like comparing a horse-drawn barge to an ocean liner.’

Simpson believes that the main reason for the difference is that our energy market is dominated by six large companies ‘whose interests are all driven by non-renewables’. Although the UK does have one company that supplies 100 per cent renewably fuelled electricity, Good Energy, 98 per cent of the nation’s domestic electricity is supplied by the ‘big six’.

As Sladek observes, in order for renewables to become the dominant form of energy generation, the electricity market needs to be decentralised as ‘renewable energy is found everywhere’. However, according to Simpson , the big six in the UK ‘are massively opposed to decentralisation because it would mean a loss of their control of the market’.

The British government is in the process of carrying out a review of the nation’s electricity market, which could lead to reform. In order to turn things around, Simpson says, we need to set up transitional tariffs that pay energy companies for the energy they supply rather than lifetime subsidies for, say, building a power station. We also need to give renewables priority access to the grid, as is the case in Germany, rather than switching off renewable-generated energy first when there’s an oversupply, as is currently the case in the UK. And, finally, we need to encourage self-generation and small publicly owned energy companies through the use of loans and tax relief – something that the Coalition’s planned ‘green bank’ could help to achieve.

‘Once communities see themselves as owners of energy generation it transforms the whole debate, not just about ownership but about stewardship,’ says Simpson. ‘Applications for wind turbines receive far less opposition on the Continent than they do here because communities often own the grid (and the turbine) by which they are served. In contrast, here, applications from big private companies are seen as an invasion or an act of piracy.’

Currently, the UK produces about five per cent of its electricity from renewables, compared to Germany’s 17 per cent, so how likely is it that our electricity will be 100 per cent renewably generated by 2050? ‘The potential is vast,’ says Simpson. ‘It’s the political vision, organisation and will that’s lacking. There needs to be a revolution in the way we think. And that won’t come from the corporate energy companies. We need Ursulas springing up all over the place who refuse to accept the government’s lack of vision.’