Seven towns in the Lake Constance region have combined efforts to run their own, independent energy company. Despite a few hurdles, they hope to create a trend that might challenge the power of Germany's big providers.
Regionalwerk Bodensee supplies one third of the area's households with power
Regionalwerk Bodensee - a small energy company in the Lake Constance region of southern Germany - places a lot of importance on direct contact with customers.
Instead of call centers, it has customer service offices; Instead of hotlines, familiar faces. Its 37-year-old manager, Enno Steffens, claims that the business really belongs to the community that it serves, and that it is easy for the customer to get in touch with the right person when they have an enquiry.
Steffens sits at the headquarters of Regionalwerk Bodensee, located on the outskirts of Tettnang, a town of 20 thousand residents. He originally comes from the northern-German city of Bremen, and took on his position with the energy provider over a year ago.
He says Regionalwerk Bodensee has found a comfortable niche, providing energy for a region that used to be serviced by a subsidiary of one of Germany's largest energy providers, EnBW.
"We feel at home here," said Steffens.
Doing it locally
One of the biggest supporters of this change in providers is Tettnang's mayor Bruno Walter.
He wanted to take the energy supply back "into our own hands."
So in 2008 the local power company was established and since then has been buying back the area's electricity grid.
Walter, in his late 40s, has always been fascinated with the idea of self reliant communities, even though its meant a lot more headaches for him.
Aside from his job as mayor, he is also the chairman of the supervisory board of Regionalwerk Bodensee.
Walter (left) and Steffens play key roles as managers
"The last years have shown that there is more demand for communities to have influence on energy supply and to deal more directly with topics like renewable energy sources," Walter said.
The towns of Tettnang, Eriskirch, Kressbronn, Langenargen, Meckenbeuren, Neukirch and Oberteuringen own a 52 percent stake in the local energy provider. The rest belongs to other energy providers in the region.
Added value for the region
The mayors of the seven towns are pleased with the system, as it helps keep tax revenue and jobs in the region.
They say that the profits boost the towns' budgets.
This, according to Walter, is something significant, as in the past the profits stayed with the subsidiary of EnBW and its shareholders.
Regionalwerk Bodensee owns 1,100 kilometers of power lines, 2,300 transmission towers and around 400 substations.
Together with 37 employees, Steffens manages the operation of the grid and the sale of electricity and gas.
This keeps him very busy, as parts of the power network are in a state of disrepair and require maintenance work.
In the days of EnBW , the large energy company "was far away," and he says the grid was neglected by the local operators.
This is why he is investing money in repairs and modernization: Over 2 million euros ($2.8 million) per year.
For a long time there was a dispute between EnBW and Regionalwerk Bodensee about the ownership of the electrical network. It became the official property of the latter six months later than planned, and only after the intervention of the Federal Network Agency.
This delay, says Steffens, cost Regionalwerk Bodensee up to 3 million euros in losses.
Despite this, company managed to make a modest profit last year - probably because one third of the region's households switched to the new provider. The remainder have stayed with the old energy provider or chosen others.
Regionalwerk Bodensee owns 1,100 kilometers of power lines
Steffens says he needs more customers to overcome future challenges. His plan is to localize the production of the energy too, as Regionalwerk Bodensee currently buys its electricity from an energy exchange.
Together with other energy providers, the company is planning to invest in renewable energy sources, such as local wind farms.
"Our goal is to involve the local people - in order to ensure their contribution and also to promote an acceptance of renewable energy in the region," said Steffens.
He believes that only those who are involved in energy production and benefit from it can accept things like wind farms in their local area.
The company has already won support for projects like photovoltaic plants, and two years ago a local energy cooperative was founded - a type of fund that allows residents to contribute financially to local solar energy production.
A new trend?
Around 800 energy providers currently operate in Germany, many of them partly owned by Germany's four large energy corporations: E.ON, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW.
Although Regionalwerk Bodensee's quest for full independence led to some initial disputes, Walter believes that its story sets an example for other small operators and makes the larger companies "afraid of losing a big part of their market share."
Steffens is optimistic about the future
And, as things look now, there will indeed be many keen imitators.
Already 1,800 contracts for local distribution of electricity and gas have been signed by communities in south-western Germany.
According to the Greens - the party currently heading a ruling coalition in the state of Baden-Württemberg - around 400 contracts will be renegotiated by 2013.
Even Stuttgart, the state's capital, is currently looking into the possibility of founding its own energy company.
Meanwhile, Steffens feels confident about the future. The pilot phase of the project is over, he says.
Walter can also sense a can-do spirit in the region:
"You can see that the mayors and the local councils are now in agreement not just over the topic of energy, but they are also approaching other issues consciously and with a sense of cooperation."
Author: Richard A. Fuchs / ew
Editor: Nathan Witkop