The energy of connection
The Pfaffengrund is something like the back of Heidelberg’s picture book backdrop: beyond the fairytale castle, historic old town and chic half-timbered architecture, dreary commercial buildings characterize the image of the district. But there is something else here that shines: the seat of the first nationwide umbrella association for energy cooperatives.
The Bürgerwerke were founded at the end of 2013 by Kai Hock and Felix Schäfer. The two are young, only in their early 30s, and they don’t look like typical business people. If you met them on the other side of the Neckar, where the oldest university in Germany is located, you would probably mistake them for PhD students.
In fact, Schäfer and Hock first came to Heidelberg to study. Both had opted for natural sciences, Schäfer for physics and Hock for molecular biotechnology. A good basis for later working in the energy sector, one might think – but the content of her studies had almost nothing to do with her current work. One developed artificial dog noses, the other specialized in nuclear research. “In theory, I could have built nuclear power plants,” says Schäfer and laughs.
The enthusiasm forenergy transitionon the other hand, they had brought them with them from school. Around the year 2000, Schäfer wrote a geography paper that caused quite a stir. The then 16-year-old had calculated that his home district of Bad Dürkheim could supply itself entirely with regenerative energies by 2008 – and subsequently campaigned for a solar roof on his high school. For Hock, who comes from the Lower Rhine, it all started with solar energy too: During the project days in the eleventh grade, he visited a solar system factory and was so fascinated that he immediately set up a working group on the subject at school.
In Heidelberg, the two pursued their passion as part of a student group. They campaigned for photovoltaics on public roofs, but initially commissioned an external company to install the solar systems and earn money from them. Hock and Schäfer said to each other: “We can do that ourselves, here on site”, and in 2010 they founded HEG , the Heidelberg Energy Cooperative . Also on board: two fellow students – a teacher and a geographer.
In the HEGordinary citizens should take over the financing of local solar systems. Finding female investors was the least of the problems for the young founders, for whom studying had long since become a minor matter: “People transferred five-digit sums to us, and they didn’t even know us. That was a bit crazy,” Schäfer says in retrospect.
However, that was still in the golden ageenergy transition. Investing in solar energy was considered a safe bet, thanks to the federal government’s fixed remuneration. However, this was restricted with the amendment to the Renewable Energy Sources Act in 2012, with the well-known consequences: the German solar market practically collapsed; the expansion of renewable energies was severely slowed down.
It became clear to Hock and Schäfer: the idea of community energy, yes, thatenergy transitionitself, had to be placed on a whole new foundation. It had to become independent of fixed purchase prices and other market imponderables, but also of the notorious centralized power grid. At least a bit. The concept: people should not only produce green electricity locally, but also be able to obtain it locally. Consumers and producers should form a unit, ideally become one. But how exactly could that be implemented?
If a house had only one owner, it was not a problem to supply him with solar energy from your own roof. But what about apartment buildings with many parties? Or with all those members of the cooperative who invested in solar energy but didn’t have photovoltaics on their own roofs, for example because it was a listed building? Hock and Schäfer wanted these people in particular to be able to obtain community electricity from renewable energy sources. “Otherwise it’s as if I have shares in solidarity agriculture, but buy my vegetables from Edeka ,” explains Kai Hock.
Until now, the electricity generated by the cooperative was fed into the general grid, from where it was distributed to customers via conventional suppliers. For example, electricity from the Gute Ute community wind farm in Hesse flowed through the RWE lines to customers in the Allgäu. Hock and Schäfer recognized that energy cooperatives must become suppliers themselves, so that Good Ute ‘s comrades can also be supplied directly by her. It soon turned out, however, that this was not manageable for a single small cooperative. Such tasks would have to be regulated in a bundled manner, in the merger of many energy cooperatives. The idea of the civil unions as an umbrella organization was born.
Nine cooperatives came together as founding members, meanwhile there are over 50 members. By becoming a member of the Bürgerwerke , they become energy suppliers with solid and loyal customers, namely their own comrades. Profits always flow back to them, while the civil utilities only cover their costs themselves. As a customer of the Bürgerwerke , on the other hand, you can purchase locally produced green electricity – even if you don’t belong to a cooperative yourself.
Through the constant financing, the energy cooperatives drive the expansion of renewable energies; some also contribute to CO 2-Reduction by supporting environmental projects. For every solar module installed, they donate a tree seedling to the Brazilian rainforest, a cooperation with BUND . The Bürgerwerke themselves also work together with an artist: Pablo Wendel sat down with themPerformance Electricsbeen artistically involved with the for some timeenergy transitionapart; Since the Bürgerwerke provided him with the necessary know-how, his energy works of art have been producing real electricity, which is even supplied to customers. The citizens’
organizations know that the energetic conversion of society is not a purely technical matterlong understood. A multi-layered approach is also reflected in the office in Heidelberg: Hock and Schäfer are now happy to have nine colleagues who combine disciplines as diverse as computer science, geography, business administration and ethnology. Enthusiasm counts for more here than business expertise, and there are hardly any hierarchies. “We’re a bunch of generalists,” explains Schäfer. At lunchtime, we cook vegetarian food together, and everyone comes to work by bike. Not because that’s a requirement, it’s just the way it is. Half jokingly, Hock and Schäfer are already thinking about company bicycles: “Orange -colored public works bicycles!” Electric – of course powered by public electricity.