PERSPECTIVE: Leveraging the power of possibility – it could happen here

By Nina Burokas of Port Townsend
Posted 8/25/15

“Wildpoldsried is a spectacular example of what can happen on a local level when residents and municipalities take matters into their own hands.”

– Charley Cameron, Inhabitat

What if we …

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PERSPECTIVE: Leveraging the power of possibility – it could happen here

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“Wildpoldsried is a spectacular example of what can happen on a local level when residents and municipalities take matters into their own hands.”

– Charley Cameron, Inhabitat

What if we could harness the communal “it takes a village” spirit and use it to create a vibrant energy and economically resilient future? In the span of roughly 10 years, that radically simple concept inspired a movement that transformed the rural village of Wildpoldsried, Germany, into a thriving community that has achieved energy independence, completed a public wish list of building and infrastructure projects, and established itself as “The Energy Village” (“Das Energiedorf”), a model of energy innovation and a renewable energy destination.

Over the past several days I have been captivated by a story that seems quite Port Townsend in its spirit and local, ecological grounding. The story of Wildpoldsried is one of head and heart.

As profiled in “Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects,” it’s a story of vision, innovation and local entrepreneurship. On a practical level, it’s the story of a municipality that evaluated environmental and economic risks and the possibilities in emerging legislation, and took the lead in developing a village of the people, by the people and for the people.

The message coming from Wildpoldsried – and from Germany broadly – is one of renewable-energy-driven economic prosperity. Günter Mögele, the deputy mayor of Wildpoldsried, shared details of his village’s transition from fossil and nuclear fuels to renewable energy sources (“Energiewende”) at the August Jefferson County Energy Lunch.

The policy framework for the village’s renewable-energy initiatives was established in its 1999 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation response. In a document titled “Wildpoldsried Innovative Leadership” (“Wildpoldsried Innovativ Richtungsweisend” or WIR-2020), the municipality defined the motivating values – “sustainability and responsibility” – and set the tone – “We shape our future” – for transformation. WIR-2020 served as a road map for the energy transformation, establishing as ecological priorities: 1) generation of renewable energy and conservation of energy; 2) ecological building, including the use of local timber; and 3) protection of (surface and underground) and environmentally friendly treatment of water.

Wildpoldsried’s transformation benefited from federal, municipal and individual action. The first German Renewable Energy Act (“Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz,” or EEG) went into effect in 2000, establishing a connection requirement and providing investment protection through 20-year guarantees of technology-specific, feed-in tariff payments.

The village council leveraged municipal funding to obtain favorable rates for public energy projects and to make bulk purchase pricing available to private citizens. Individuals were the original energy pioneers, experimenting with small-business- and residential-scale hydroelectric and wastewater treatment systems. In 1999, a group of neighbors formed a civic society and subsequently a company that built the first two wind turbines.

The village has invested in a range of renewable energy options, including biomass, hydropower, wind energy, photovoltaic and local wood, leveraging these technologies with a smart grid and storage systems. In his presentation at the Energy Lunch, Mögele represented the elements of their energy portfolio as gears, noting that the central and most important “gear” is citizen participation and ownership.

The village currently generates approximately 500 percent more energy than it consumes. Each major individual element in its energy generation portfolio generates more energy than the village consumes annually. Wildpoldsried’s energy investments are currently generating 46 GWh and 6 million euros ($6.9 million) annually. Investment in local public energy projects is only open to citizens of Wildpoldsried. More than 300 private individuals have invested in the windmills, and there are more than 350 private owners of PV (photovoltaic) and thermal solar “plants” or installations. Despite reductions in tariffs, the village (and country) continues to invest in renewable energy.

What I hear in Mögele’s story is a call to action – an opportunity to “shape our future.” My sense is that Port Townsend is at an inflection point. We have significant natural resources and intellectual and social capital, and yet we are at risk. We are geographically remote, with a fragile economy and electric and water infrastructure.

I see the opportunity to engage the community in resource- and climate-related projects that create additional businesses and revenue streams and resilience in the form of local green jobs, infrastructure and expertise. I’ve come to the conclusion that the question I’ve been grappling with – whether developing energy and economic resilience is feasible absent the policy and related market price supports – is moot.

Indeed, what’s the alternative?

(Nina Burokas is a marketing and strategy consultant and educator who lives in Port Townsend. Her interest is moving the world toward a more resilient future.)

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