A Christmas Energy Story

December 17, 2012 | 00:00

A Christmas Energy Story

With Christmas coming up, what could be more appropriate than to have a story about brave Little Guys who are fighting Big Business and Big Government to make the Energy World a better place?

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the German energy cooperatives (Genossenschaften) who, little though they may be, are – as our Berlin correspondent Paul Hockenos reports – beginning to make a Big Splash in the German energy market.

Indeed, it is a remarkable tale. The number of energy co-ops in Germany has tripled to more than 600 in just two years. Every second day a new one is being formed, writes Paul. They now have some 80,000 active members who together have invested at least €800 million in green energy production, mostly in solar power, but increasingly in other forms or renewable energy, such as wind power and hydro. The biggest energy co-op, known in Germany as the Stromrebellen, is EW Schönau, which has 130,000 electricity customers and a gas works serving 7,000 people.

Crucially for the success of the Energiewende, the energy co-ops are also getting more and more involved in the electricity grids. For instance, in Berlin, a co-op (BürgerEnergie Berlin) has been formed that wants to buy the electricity grid of the country's Capital from current owner Vattenfall.

Small wonder then that Germany's environment minister Peter Altmaier took the time to address the first-ever congress of energy cooperatives which took place in Berlin in November. "If all Germans were engaged as you, my job would be a lot easier", he told the 400-strong audience, referring to the strong public opposition to the grid expansion and modernization that is necessary to integrate Germany's wind and solar power into the electricity system.

Whether the Genossenschaften will be willing and able to help the German government out, however, is not certain, writes Paul. The same can be said for the impact they will have on the established energy market. What does seem certain is that they form an important new trend that has the potential to revolutionise the energy market from below.

Meanwhile, the stability of the German electricity network is not exactly improving. Many experts are highly worried about what could happen if another cold snap occurred like in February of this year, when Germany narrowly escaped largescale power blackouts.

Independent consultant Paul-Frederick Bach reports on his website that "without too much public attention Germany has introduced interruptible loads". Bach notes that "on the 28th November 2012 the German Government adopted an order on the disconnection of large electricity consumers within the framework of intelligent grids. The transmission system operators and the large industrial consumers must experimentally over three years develop procedures for interruptible loads." The reason for this measure, he writes, "is the still more frequent cases of strained conditions on the German transmission grids caused by the Energiewende."

Bach notes that the order is presented very "discreetly" at the website of the Ministry of Economics and Technology, commenting that "maybe the ministry is not exactly proud of this element of the Energiewende".

He may well be right. In fact, I have heard that insiders are betting with each other on whether Germany can keep the lights on this winter. An altogether different kind of Christmas story – and one that is not nearly so romantic of course.

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