Thursday, 5 April 2012

Building the green economy from the bottom up to the sky

Families and citizens throughout Europe unite to support local wind and photovoltaic systems: energy democracy is the key to build a green economy from the bottom up. 

by Ilaria Lonigro 

Photo by seaskylab,

You don't have to wait for the (slow) choices of governments to turn your local economy into a green one. Everyone can do their part: this is what is called energy democracy. It starts with an assembly of citizens and it ends up with wind and solar energy for a whole community. From the bottom up... to the sky! 

From Freiamt, in German Black Forest, to Thy, in Denmark, there are many positive stories that make Europe the cradle of energy democracy. 

Denmark, in particular, gained the enviable record of increasing its GDP by 74% between 1980 and 2008 while, at the same time, the country reduced its CO2 emissions by 17%. This amazing result was achieved not only thanks to the rejection of atomic energy and the ban on the development of coal-fired power plants, but also thanks to the decentralized wind-base systems and to small-scale biomass CHP technologies, which cover up to the 53% of Danish electricity production. 

This green story began in Denmark more than a hundred years ago... exactly in 1891, when a brilliant inventor called Poul La Cour turned a common Danish windmill into an aero generator to lighten up the local school. Additionally, La Cour decided not to use normal light bulbs, but to use instead lamps supplied with hydrogen. This was produced by water electrolysis and it compensated for wind's irregularity. Thanks to his example, 120 public utilities built up 20 and 30 kW wind farms, which in 1918 covered up to 3% of electricity need in Denmark. 

Photo by Stuart Miles,

But it was after the oil crisis in 1973 that interest for wind energy increased. The government supported windmills' owners' self production. Thanks to a crowdfunding process, Denmark gained a high percentage of sustainable energy. 175.000 families owned parts of wind farms.In 2000 a quarter of aero-generators was owned by citizens or cooperatives. The cooperative form and the collective initiatives are probably the secret of such a huge success. 

Just think of Middlegrunden, the offshore wind park near Copenaghen. It consists of 22 MW aero-generators and it was realized thanks to the financial support of 7.000 citizens. In the Thy peninsula wind energy covers up to the 80% of the need of 48.000 inhabitants. It also enriches them: when it's very windy, they can produce a lot of energy for export. 

Imagine how many tons of CO2 were saved: a big wind turbine can produce more than 1 MW (correspondent to the consumption of 1000 Europeans) and it avoids the emission of 2000 tons of CO2 per year. Besides, wind energy is going to create many jobs: more than 300.000 people all around the world will be employed in wind energy economy by 2020. A big business, indeed. 

This is what Ernst Leimar thought, too. He lived in Freiamt, in the Black Forest, Germany, and he became very interested in the green economy after he noticed the interest some big investors had in wind and solar energy. Mr. Leimar proposed his fellow citizens to benefit from this green business together. Some 1000 people -a quarter of the total inhabitants of the town- reunited in a general assembly. Wind measuring campaigns were made and finally, when they raised EUR 23 million, they built the first 2 aero-generators, followed by other solar and wind systems. Freimat soon produced an energy surplus of 17%, which gave the local community an income.

Photo by dan,

There are far more examples of energy democracy in Europe, like the story of the little town of Marienkoog in Germany. Here 40% of the adult population is the owner of the Galmsb├╝ll B├╝rgerwindpark, which means citizens' wind farm. It consists of sevensystems made by Siemens of 3,6 MW each.

Not only: in 2009, 105 families invested EUR 10 million and built up a 3,5 MW ground photovoltaic system in Nindorf, in the Schleswig Holstein area.

These stories demonstrate that green economies can be built from bottom up. Additionally, a ramified system of energy supply is possible and it can lead to a positive footprint for the environment, an income for the local communities and active citizenparticipation.

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