Tiny German village a model in country's energy revolution

Germany is in the process of completely transforming its energy sector at a pace unmatched by other industrialized nations. Nuclear power is being phased out as renewables are gradually taking over – and the village of Feldheim, population 145, is leading the way.

Feldheim, population 145, generates all its own heat and light

Energiequelle spokesperson Werner Frohwitter stands in front of 43 wind turbines his company put up in Feldheim. It's the only Germany community using only renewable energy, hooked up to its own energy grid. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

The tiny village of Feldheim is at the leading edge of Germany’s renewable energy transition, proving to thousands of foreign politicians, scientists and activists every year that it is possible to live and be economically viable without fossil fuels.

Located 60 kilometres south of Berlin, this community of 145 people uses wind, sun and manure to heat and light its 37 homes.

"We are really 100 per cent neutral as far as the emission of carbon dioxide is concerned. We have our heat and electricity 100 per cent from renewable energies, so not a single drop of oil is used," says Barbara Ral, a biologist who runs tours and does education on behalf of the community.

Today, she is showing around a journalist and 40 civil servants from Thailand.

"We’re now inside the windmill," Ral explains at one point in the tour. "There are 43 windmills in the wind farm. The village needs only one windmill, so the others sell energy to the public grid."

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and has been previously posted in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C.

Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

Feldheim is the only community in Germany that solely uses renewable energy and has its own power grid, although the federal government has credited several other "bioenergy villages" for heading in that direction.

It’s part of a major change in the country’s energy strategy, which accelerated after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan two years ago.

In response, Germany closed eight nuclear plants and Chancellor Angela Merkel said the rest would be phased out by 2022. Already, nearly 25 per cent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewable resources. The share of nuclear currently stands at about 17 per cent.

The government said it would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 (compared with 1990 levels) and by 80 per cent by 2050. Germany is the first industrialized nation in the world to attempt emissions reductions to this degree.

"The current debate right now is the question of whether it’s a cost versus an investment," says Petri Hakkarainen, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.

"Today’s generation is doing this for their children and grandchildren, so it’s a classical question of short term versus long term, and to what extent should this generation pay for the next generation. That’s what makes the German debate so exceptional, that so far, Germany is willing to do exactly that."

Feldheim hasn’t always been a model community. Back when Germany was still divided into east and west, it was a communist collective farm. Not much changed after Germany was reunited – that is, until 1995, when a company called Energiequelle installed the first five wind turbines on nearby fields.

By 2008, the community had built a biogas factory to be used for heat. It’s fueled by a mix of unused corn and pig manure grown by area farmers. A furnace that burns wood chips left over from felled local trees serves as a backup heat source in the winter.

In 2010, Feldheim residents worked with Energiequelle to build their own power grid. The community also established a metal-working factory that builds the bases for photovoltaic cell panels.

All of this has created jobs, and residents pay 25 to 30 per cent less for electricity than most Germans – a deal that is locked in for the next decade, says Energiequelle spokesperson Werner Frohwitter.

"There was no plan in it at the beginning, it was all by chance," he says. "When the system came into being, we didn’t realize Feldheim would become a mecca for renewable energies, but now people come to tiny little Feldheim to see an energy system possible without fossil fuels or big power companies."

Individual buy-in

Getting buy-in from average citizens is what will make Germany’s ambitious energy transition a success, says Hakkarainen.

"It’s a defining part of the Energiewende [energy transition or revolution] – having people involved and not just large utilities in charge of electricity – very much your average Joe, everyone has a chance to contribute to this," he says.

While there is broad public support for this transition, the devil is in the details, says Hubertus Bardt of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.

"There are lots of challenges to make it right. It may be technically manageable, but we also have to make sure it’s economically manageable," he explains.

For example, oil and gas companies are worried about their share of the market.

Meanwhile, energy-intensive companies still have to compete on world markets and can’t always pass on the increased price of electricity to their customers. As a result, some may choose to leave Germany, taking jobs with them, Bardt says.

And average citizens are understandably unhappy when they see extra costs on their electricity bills.

"There is some fear the cost and security of the electricity supply might be endangered for a period of time. We have to … think about who bears the burden between now and one day in the future when it all pays off," Bardt says.

"In the worst-case scenario," he says, "we have the Energiewende, but no viable industry."

Hakkarainen agrees there’s a lot at stake.

"If Germany were to fail in all of this, it would set a bad example for everyone else – if Germany can’t do it, how could anyone else?"

Replicating success?

Back in Feldheim, the Thai civil servants are raving about what they’ve seen and the possibilities for their own country.

"This is a model we should learn about and try to adopt and adjust to our Thai community," says Karen Permpoonwiwat of the King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Bangkok.

Thongchai Tangpremsri agrees, although he says it may take a while to make it happen back home.

"We’re not a rich country compared to Germany. It’s step by step. We look at windmill[s], but in Thailand it’s really hard to find a place for the windmill. Solar energy is good because in Thailand, we have sunlight, but at the moment, the price of solar cells is high," he says.

Werner Frohwitter concedes Feldheim is a very small experiment, but he’s convinced this kind of system can work for any community up to 10,000 residents. His company hopes to prove that in the next decade, by hooking up the nearest town to Feldheim’s power grid.

"There’s still a long way to go, but Feldheim shows it is possible that you can have an independent energy supply system without nukes, carbon emissions and without oil," he says.