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Electricity Rebels (Stromrebellen)

March 2, 2006
Paul Gipe

Strom Rebels of Schönau: The Village That Built Their Own Solar Utility


While thumbing through one of Franz Alt's books in the comfort of my easy chair, I stopped on the heading "Strom Rebels of Schönau". (I couldn't honestly say I was reading Alt's book. My German's not up to the task.) What, I asked myself, do rebels have to do with electricity?

Then it dawned on me why we read books. (And why some of us attempt to read books in tongues other than our own.) They engage those sometimes rusty mental gears. What is renewable energy, if not a revolt in the way we think about the world around us? Isn't it a renewable energy revolution that's sweeping the planet today? Haven't we renewable-energy advocates been rebelling against the status quo now for almost three decades.

Schönau Lutheran Church with Signboard: Window on Creation

Alt captured that rebellious spirit in his inspiring tale of the small town of Schönau and how residents built a solar utility in the deep recesses of Germany's Schwartzwald--the Black Forest of legend. The story has all the elements of its own legend in the making. Small town Davids against electric utility Goliaths. Simple townsfolk with a bright, you could say "sunny", outlook on the future. And a decades-long struggle to bring their dream to reality. There's a movie script waiting to be written, or at least a documentary.


Update January 18, 2011: EWS now serves 100,000 customers or about one-quarter million individuals.

Update: April 18, 2011, Ursula Sladek won the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for her anti-nuclear work and for her development of EWS, a cooperatively-owned renewable power company.

Update February 3, 2014: EWS' Ursula Sladek has won the German Environmental Prize (Deutschen Umweltpreises) one of the most prestigious environmental awards in Europe. The award was presented by German President Joachim Gauck. Sladek and EWS had won the Goldman Environmental Prize, known colloquially as the Green Nobel Prize. Sladek said she'd use the prize money to further cooperative ownership of distribution systems elsewhere in Germany.


The Schönau story is certainly well known in Germany, no doubt partly due to Alt, a popular German author, lecturer, and TV personality. Alt is something of a rebel himself. With books provocatively titled "The Ecological Jesus" and "War over Oil or Peace through the Sun," to name just a few, he's part of an ecumenical movement in Germany that seeks to fulfill the biblical injunction to "protect creation".

Now I can't say that I put down Alt's book and immediately booked a flight, but we were planning a trip to Germany and it made sense to keep Schönau in mind if we were nearby. Serendipity always plays a role in travel and we do occasionally respond to the call of adventure.

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Our itinerary took us to the "Solar City" of Freiburg, where I wanted to photograph the city's heralded solar installations and interview Josef Pesch, the developer of community-owned wind projects. Pesch too is a strom rebel, and when I brought up the topic he proceeded to give us a touristic itinerary that took us to his wind turbines on Schaunsland (the mountain looming over Freiburg), and to Schönau, in the heart of the Schwartzwald. So, off we went.

I've been doing this long enough to know that it's unlikely you can just walk in on a business and expect them to drop everything and talk to you. Thus, we thought we'd spend a few hours in Schönau, walk around, take a few pictures, and leave for a romantic Gästhaus on a nearby mountaintop. It didn't work out that way.

Maybe it was the blue roof of the Lutheran church, or its signboard counting the kilowatt-hours its solar panels had generated, or the solar panels on rooftops throughout the village, or maybe it was the friendly EWS flag fluttering over Elektritzitätswerke Schönau, headquarters of the strom rebellion. Whatever the reason, we decided to stay.

It was the right decision. We found our Gästhaus on the village square, and spending a night in Schönau, we caught a bit of the quiet excitement that marks the growth of solar energy in Germany.

EWS's Ursula Sladek

We also found the rebels at EWS welcoming and the haupt rebel herself, Ursula Sladek, invited us into her office for a brief chat.

Schönau's impetus for taking control of its electricity future began, like many German grassroots campaigns for solar energy, with Chernobyl.

Sladek lay in bed nursing a broken leg when the Russian reactor went critical in 1986. As her children ignored her commands to stay inside out of the radioactive rain, she had her Damascene moment. Why live in fear that your children will play in deadly rain? Why use a technology so deadly? Thus began a decade-long odyssey to bring the sun into the Black Forest.

Electricity from Schönau. Power of the South.

She wasn't alone. Joining with others in their community of 2,600 souls, Sladek's campaign began with a simple enough goal: to end the use of nuclear energy in Schönau. Not that there was a reactor nearby. But the local utility did buy some of its electricity from reactors in nearby Switzerland.

The citizen's group, Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future, approached the local utility, Kraftübertragungswerken Rheinfelden (KWR), and asked them to stop using nuclear power. KWR declined. Then began Schönau's long march toward taking control of its local distribution network from KWR.

The first referendum failed. The majority said no. Leave supplying electricity to the professionals. How could little Schönau fight 100 years of centralization and consolidation? Stubbornness must be inbred in Southern Germany's forested hinterlands where woodworking is still a craft. Sladek and Schönau's rebels didn't give up.

The second "Bürgerinitiativen" succeeded, and the village was on its way to taking control of its distribution system with the formation of Schönau's Electricity Company (Elektrizitätswerke Schönau) or EWS.

EWS originally served 1,070 customers in Schönau. With electricity liberalization in the late 1990s--yes, it was all the rage in Germany, too--EWS took the strom rebellion nationwide, to the surprise of everyone. Today EWS, located on the main road into Schönau, delivers green electricity to 31,000 customers throughout Germany.

Of course, EWS not only delivers electricity-strom-but also a message. The message is that if you want a solar future, you have to get out there with your neighbors and build it.

Most of EWS's electricity mix is old hydro from plants in the region, but it is increasing its supply of wind and solar by investing in projects locally and encouraging residents to do so. That's how Josef Pesch became a strom rebel. He helped EWS find locally-owned renewable energy suppliers.

EWS is publicly owned. Not in the abstract sense that a nation or a province owns-technically, legally-a behemoth utility, but in the simple sense that it is mostly local people who own it. EWS is managed like a cooperative. Each shareholder, no matter how many shares they own, is entitled to only one vote on EWS's management.

Schönau's story is inspirational.

As we were leaving the EWS office, I glanced at a brochure. It was certainly not one you'd find in a conventional electric utility. Titled Wind Energy for Peace and Justice, in it a Lutheran bishop called for community investment in an ecumenical wind turbine to "protect creation". Inspirational indeed.

The next morning showed bright-and sunny. The panels on Schönau's rooftops were gleaming: A fitting vision of a solar future.


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