Unlocking the Grid

03.04.142:44 AM ET

Women Take Aim at Berlin’s Power

Arwen Colell and Luise Neumann-Cosel are still in their 20s, but they have already made great strides toward their goal of a citizen-controlled, renewable energy system for Berlin.

“Wait a minute, I’m on my bike and I have to pull over. We need to talk about this.”

That was Arwen Colell’s reaction in 2011 when her longtime friend from a youth choir called and suggested seizing control of one of Germany’s largest power grids.

Turned out it wasn’t such a crazy idea, after all. Colell, now 26, and Luise Neumann-Cosel 27, hatched a plan to create a co-operative aimed at transforming Berlin’s electricity grid into a citizen-controlled, renewable energy system. More than two years later, the Bürger Energie Berlin (Citizens’ Energy Berlin) put forth one of five remaining bids that the Berlin Senate will consider when the concession for the grid is auctioned off at the end of the year.

The co-op is comprised of about 2,000 members and has raised nearly $13.5 million dollars (€10 million) since its inception. The ambitious initiative has also successfully cultivated partnerships and sponsorships with both local and national energy management and financial institutions. Though encouraged to invest at least $680 (€500), each member receives a vote regardless of how much money they expend while financial surplus is contingent on a member’s contribution.

“The goal is to have a voice no matter how much you put in,” says Colell,a Berlin native working as a project manager at ubitricity, a local startup focusing on charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Colell, who gave birth to a son in 2012, manages technology field test projects in Germany and neighboring countries. The political scientist has studied in Berlin, the United States as well as Japan. 

Neumann-Cosel, Berlin’s only employee, first began organizing demonstrations around German elections in 2009 and protests after Fukushima. The Berlin-born geo-ecologist also worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in the German town Gorleben, protesting against nuclear waste transports. When she realized that the grid concession expiration was imminent, it was only natural that Neumann-Cosel turned to her friend to begin plotting.

Berlin’s electricity grid, which distributes power to 3.3 million people, is currently managed by Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. The company’s concession to control the grid expires at the end of 2014, leaving a chance for Citizens’ Energy Berlin to return the power to the people.

Vattenfall owns several coal power plants in Berlin, which some activists argue gives them a vested interest in keeping the grid reliant on cheap, brown coal known as lignite. Currently, as Der Spiegel reports, Germany’s capital city uses only 1.4 percent of renewable energy to produce power.

That’s problematic for a country that’s taken on what Chancellor Angela Merkel has called a “Herculean task” of eliminating nuclear power plants, reducing coal dependency, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020. More ambitiously, politicians have vowed to power at least  80 percent  of Germany’s electricity with renewable energy by 2050.  

The national push, known as Energiewende or “energy transformation,” became policy in 2000 and was revived in March 2011 following the Fukushima disaster. But Merkel’s closing of seven reactors led to the imminent return of brown coal, and the national march toward clean energy slowed to a crawl. 

Though nuclear energy has dropped by 10 percent since 2011, Germany saw an increase of coal power by 9 percent while natural gas power decreased by 23 percent, according to Germany’s Federal Statistical Office . Meanwhile, the nation  recorded the highest levels of brown coal power production since 1990, which some Energiewende critics argue is result of a flawed policy. 

But Hans-Josef Fell, a Green Party Parliament member, contends the rise of coal plants is only a temporary phenomenon during a transitional phase. 

“Big companies like Vattenfall missed out to invest in renewables at an early stage,” says Fell. “Now they see themselves confronted with losing more and more market share to citizen initiatives and small energy providers.” 

Indeed, Berliners are not the first Germans to push for a decentralized system. Many attribute the movement to Schönau, a small town tucked away in the Black Forest region of southern Germany. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, Schönau residents organized a campaign to regain control of the local grid and made a successful purchase in 1999. The co-op not only manages the grid, but also remains one of the four leading independent renewable energy suppliers in Germany. 

With Schönau’s support, Neumann-Cosel and Colell spent their first year carefully campaigning and networking, transforming their phone conversation into a viable plan.  

“We decided if want to change the situation, we probably have to do something on our own,” Neumann-Cosel says, echoing the Schönau ethos. 

That aphorism has resounded throughout Germany in cities like Hamburg, where locals are also campaigning to municipalize the energy system. 

“There are already a bunch of smaller cities which were able to take over their energy-supply systems, now focusing on the development of renewable energies,” Fell says. “I strongly believe this is only the beginning and there are many more to come.” 

The energy self-sufficiency movement, supported by the Energiewende, has created a renaissance of decentralizing power. As more contracts wind down on an expiration date between now and 2020, Colell explains, more citizen initiatives are cropping up. 

“People now understand it’s not just about fossil fuels or nuclear power,” Neumann-Cosel says, “but it’s about who has the power in the energy sector.” 

Still, Citizens’ Energy Berlin has a long way to go. It’s unclear exactly how much the grid is worth, but Vattenfall values it at $4.1 billion (€3 billion) while the co-op estimates closer to $1.3 billion (€1 billion). In order to put forth a bid, the co-op must raise the capital quota of 40 percent, which means they have to collect at least $546 million (€400 million). 

But Colell is resolved, noting that creating more awareness through political activism will spark more fundraising for the coffer. Perhaps that political nudge is already underway. 

Last November a separate activist group, Berlin Energy Table, launched a political campaign to draft a law that would force city officials to buy back the grid and manage it through a local energy utility. Despite overwhelming support–83 percent favored the proposal–the referendum was unsuccessful. But Colell says the political campaign was anything but a failure. 

“The only thing that failed was to force the city to establish this new energy utility,” she says. “There was no public debate on the role of a grid operator for the local Energiewende, and now there’s so much debate, politicians really can’t look past it.”

Regardless of the co-op’s outcome, Neumann-Cosel and Colell’s movement signifies the potential role of ordinary citizens. Public participation can mean more than just having a voice, but also having an economic interest. 

“We have to be careful that we’re not celebrating too early,” Neumann-Cosel humbly adds. “We must not forget we still rely on brown coal and we can’t lean back and say the problem is going to solve itself.”