When I moved to Berlin as a graduate student in the fall of 1998, there was an unfamiliar smell and thickness to the city air. I soon realized why. Every few days, my East Berlin flatmates would traipse down to the cellar of our apartment building and return with a crate of charcoal to feed into the tiled stove that was our apartment's sole heat source.
Idealism also hung thickly in the air. When we weren't consuming culture, coffee or beer, we were at the demonstrations that are popular sport in Berlin, joining hundreds of thousands to protest against the far right or the Iraq war or to honour the life of Rosa Luxemburg.
While Berlin's days of coal ovens may have passed, student activism is alive and well as evidenced by BürgerEnergie Berlin (Citizen Energy Berlin), a student-run initiative to buy the city's power grid back from the private sector. The group wants to both green the grid and democratize it – returning the power, quite literally, to the people.
“I know it sounds like delusions of grandeur and totally crazy,” says 29-year-old Luise Neumann-Cosel, one of the group's founders, on the phone from Berlin. “What matters is not that we succeed, but that we open up the debate.”
Berlin's power grid comes up for tender every two decades and its most recent operator has been Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant that is heavily invested in energy in Germany, owning several coal mines and power plants in the Lausitz region southeast of Berlin.
In 2011, as Vattenfall's concession was coming to term, Neumann-Cosel happened to be working as a student intern in Berlin's parliament and listening in on discussions about the contract's renewal. Nobody seemed bothered by what Neumann-Cosel, who cut her activist teeth in the anti-nuclear movement, considered an outrage: “What incentive does Vattenfall have to move to renewables when it can be buying fossil fuel energy from itself?”
She has a point. While hand-pulled coal carts no longer rattle down Berlin's cobblestone streets, coal still accounts for over 90 per cent of the capital city's power mix and renewables less than 2 per cent – a blatant contradiction in a country undergoing an ambitious Energiewende (energy transformation), aiming to phase out nuclear power and coal by 2022 and to be relying on 80 per cent renewable energy by 2050.
It's also a matter of principle. “The power grid is a public service and part of the country's essential infrastructure,” says Neumann-Cosel, “Its operation shouldn't be profit-motivated.” Why, she asks, should €100 million in annual profits flow to private pockets in Sweden when they could be returned to the ratepayers themselves and reinvested in a more sustainable system in accordance with the Energiewende?
Together with fellow student Arwen Colell, Neumann-Cosel set up BürgerEnergie Berlin as a co-operative, inviting Berliners to become members with an investment of as little as one euro. To date, they have raised over 11 million euros.
By the time Vattenfall's contract expired and the grid was put up for auction in 2014, BürgerEnergie had positioned itself as a serious bidder, one of three. The process has stagnated ever since, stuck in red tape and legal technicalities as the city refines its catalogue of criteria and negotiates with each contender behind closed doors.
“At the end of the day, it's a political decision,” says Neumann-Cosel, but BürgerEnergie seems to know how to play the game. The co-op has an impressive advisory board and a savvy PR team. Whenever Berlin's energy future is being discussed, Neumann-Cosel is there – the only panelist donning a nose-ring and striped tights. Berlin's finance senator has publicly endorsed her group.
“We play up the 'young woman against the huge company' thing but I'm by no means alone,” says Neumann-Cosel, adding that while she feels privileged to have been able to work full-time on this project since 2012, she never dreamt it would drag on for so long.
As she waits for the city of Berlin to make up its mind, Neumann-Cosel hosts visitors from all over the world who are interested in the idea behind BürgerEnergie. Recently it was a group from Japan, looking for post-Fukushima inspiration. And she's involved in a couple of solar projects in Berlin where Mieterstrom (renter's electricity) is booming, now that Berliners have figured out how to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of using microfits on rental properties.
According to Brett Fairbairn, director of the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan, Germany's leadership in renewable energy stems from a “particular interplay” of grassroots activism and high level policy. The Renewable Energy Act of 2000, which guaranteed full compensation for renewable installations and set rates for 20 years, has met with a huge uptake and much of it by collectives. As of 2015, a third of all electricity generated in Germany comes from renewable sources (mainly wind and solar) and half of that capacity is in citizens’ hands. The number of energy co-operatives in Germany increased sixfold between 2008 and 2013.
Fairbairn is not surprised to see German groups getting involved in energy distribution as the “next logical step.” What interests him is that the Germans are choosing the co-operative model.
“In Germany, the co-operative is widely seen as a small business model that supports the middle class, that makes its members economically stronger,” he says, as opposed to a Canadian attitude that often associates co-operatives with the political left and an antagonism to business. While energy co-operatives exist in Canada, they are typically rural, small in scale and subject to provincial legislation whereas in Germany, the regulatory framework is national and advantageous; the Renewable Energy Act, first drafted by a coalition government of Greens and Social Democrats, pushes not only for greener energy but also for more decentralized energy with greater citizen participation and control.
“A unique quality of the Energiewende,” says Fairbairn, “is that it's not just about green power. It's about democratization.”
This concept is nothing new to Canadians. When Sir Adam Beck, mayor of London, Ontario and the province's first “Power Minister,” installed the first 110,000-volt transmission line to carry hydro-electricity from Niagara Falls to 14 municipalities in southwestern Ontario, he did so as an outspoken champion of publicly owned electricity. On October 11, 1910, before an excited crowd, Beck flicked a switch in Berlin (now Kitchener) and a street sign lit up reading: “For the People.”
“In theory, we're still community owners of our power,” says Ian Rowlands, professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, “in the sense that many of our power utilities are publicly owned.”
But as the grid grows more congested with inputs, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate centrally. Rowlands is interested in a nascent trend he calls the “Uberization” of the grid. He paints a picture in which a person visiting a country fair, needing to charge their mobile phone, checks an app to find local power producers and their prices and then chooses from competing offers. Far from science fiction, a Dutch startup called Vandebron is already offering this service.
Canada's not there yet. What's missing, according to Fairbairn, are provincial or even national efforts to change the regulatory environment. What Canada does have, however, are lots of small local groups making the most of what they have. One of the 76 local distribution companies in Ontario, for example, is a co-operative. In 1998, when Ontario deregulated its electricity market, ending the nearly century-long monopoly of Ontario Hydro, the community of Embrun, southeast of Ottawa, wrote a polite letter to then finance minister Ernie Eves requesting co-operative ownership of its grid. Since then, 2,000 electricity customers in Embrun have enjoyed distribution rates that are half what the Hydro One customers across the street are paying. Co-operative Hydro Embrun has no influence over its supply and its rates are set by the Ontario Energy Board, but still, general manager Benoit Lamarche feels “very lucky” to be shareholder and customer in one. He's never heard of BürgerEnergie Berlin but he's inspired. “Who will set the rates?” he asks. “That's the most important question.”
Luise Neumann-Cosel isn't there yet. In her wildest dreams, PV cells cover most roofs in Berlin and the city is collaborating with the neighbouring state of Brandenburg to bring wind energy south from the Baltic Sea. In her less wild dreams, Berliners – and everyone else – are waking up to the reality that no matter how clean the energy source, they have to use less of it.
“That's the part of the message that nobody wants to hear,” she says.