In April 1986, Ursula Sladek lay at home, incapacitated with a broken thigh after a skiing accident. As fallout from the Soviet reactor Chernobyl rained over Europe, Sladek pleaded with her kids not to go out in the yard. They ignored her, and that got her thinking.
To counter her feeling of helplessness, Sladek, a homemaker, joined forces with other Schönau residents and formed Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. Their aim was to put an end to atomic energy. The group did what they could to raise townspeople's energy awareness, running competitions to save energy and even approaching the Black Forest town's electricity provider, hoping that Kraftübertragungswerke Rheinfelden (KWR) would introduce prices that rewarded customers for frugal energy use.
But by showing the parents the door, the stony faces at KWR inadvertently heralded the end of their golden days of providing Schönau with electricity. After 13 years, two town referendums and a successful nationwide campaign to raise funds, the Schönau "electricity rebels," as the press dubbed the citizens' initiative, became the first German community to buy back their own power grid.
"We weren't after the electricity network," Sladek has said. "In the beginning we just wanted a little support for our idea."
The "rebels" started producing the energy their town needed by building block heating stations and installing solar panels, including outfitting the local Protestant church with solar cells. What they couldn't supply themselves they bought. And in 1999, Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS) went national, a year after the German electricity market was liberalized.
With size comes power
Today, the Schönauer initiative heads one of the largest of Germany's half dozen "green" electricity companies and is rapidly on its way to 30,000 customers, according to Sladek, now one of EWS's managing directors.
"We see ourselves as a political energy organization," said Sladek. "The aim isn't to earn more but to have more power." Size is the way to influence, she said.
In a country of 80 million people, however, EWS Schönau's customer base appears insignificant. The company doesn't advertise, relying instead on word of mouth from satisfied customers to recruit new ones and investing its profits in promoting environmentally friendly electricity sources. To that end, EWS helps customers set up their own environmentally friendly means of producing electricity and pays them for the kilowatts they deliver into the grid.
Giants go green
Although Germany decided to gradually phase out nuclear power, people aren't switching in droves to EWS or its "green" competitors. In the seven years since liberalization, only 5 percent of customers have changed companies at all, according to the electricity industry's association, VDEW. And green companies only attract between 5 and 10 percent of customers, said Peter Floyd Reese, head of the energy department at Verivox, an Internet portal that offers consumers energy market information.
Green electricity does cost more. Currently, an average three-person Berlin family spends at least 547 euros ($706) yearly on electricity. The cheapest "green" energy contract, with a firm that also provides energy generated by nuclear plants, would cost them 559 euros. Going to a supplier that only sells green energy would set the family back by 585 euros. They'd pay another 20 euros to get their electricity from EWS.
Consumers hold back
But it's not just the cost that keeps Germans from going green. "Changing electricity companies is still connected with lots of fear," Sladek said. People are concerned that their supply could be interrupted if they switch companies, although the law prevents it. And laziness, too, is a factor, with an overwhelming 900 electricity providers operating in Germany.
Around 100 of them supply electricity to roughly 80 percent of Germany's customers. And the bigger firms all offer "green" energy, for fear that the marginal but growing interest in environmentally sound energy might pass them by. "They recognized the zeitgeist," Reese said. "Everyone knows it, though no one in the bigger companies' press departments would say it to your face."EWS keeps plugging along, confident that more and more people will choose them as new energy possibilities get on the radar screens of more people who would prefer their power come from renewable, non-nuclear resources.
"They're not just customers to us, but more like comrades-in-arms," Sladek (photo) said.