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Power grab

Louise OsborneMay 15, 2013

A Berlin citizens' group wants to wrest control of the city’s electricity grid in order to promote renewable energy. They accuse current operator Vattenfall of failing to seek alternatives to fossil fuels.

Title: Mitgleider von BuergerEnergie Berlin Keywords: Berlin, Energie, Strom, Stromnetzwerk, BuergerEnergie Berlin, netzgipfel, Energiewende, Umwelt Aktivisten Who is the photographer: Ercan Atak When was the picture taken: 27-04-13 Description: Mitglieder der Gruppe BuergerEnergie Berlin bei einem Protest - sie wollen mehr Unterstützung für die Energiewende.
Image: Ercan Atak

Two young women stand together behind a lectern at the front of a crowded room in Berlin. Their audience includes energy experts, activists and curious residents who are here to find out about a new initiative to buy Germany's largest electricity distribution grid.

The grid is currently under the control of Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. But the people in this room say the utility has failed to embrace Germany's transition to renewable energy and they want to take over grid control. The contract between the grid operator and Berlin's government runs out at the end of 2014 and the two women speaking today - Luise Neumann-Cosel and Arwen Colell - have come up with a plan.

“It was May 2011, when Luise called me up on the phone saying the concession's ending and we should buy the grid," Colell told DW in an interview. "I thought, yeah, we really should."

Title: Ein Informationstrefen bei BuergerEnergie Keywords: Berlin, Energie, Strom, Stromnetzwerk, BuergerEnergie Berlin, netzgipfel, Energiewendemembers, speakers, questions Who is the photographer: Ercan Atak When was the picture taken: 27-04-13 Description: Pressesprecher der Berliner Energietisch Stefan Taschner und BuergerEnergie Berlin Grunderin Luise Neumann-Cosel bei der Berliner Netzgipfel Konferenz.
Stefan Taschner and Luise Neumann-Cosel explain how Berliners can sieze control of the gridImage: Ercan Atak

The pair have formed BuergerEnergie Berlin (Citizen Energy Berlin), a cooperative which is pooling investments from members in order to make a bid for grid control. Colell and Neumann-Cosel have criss-crossed the country, building their concept with input from organizations like the Elektrizitaetswerke Schoenau (Electricity Utility Schoenau), a citizens' group that operates the power grid in the German town of Schoenau.

“We had lots of worries," said Colell. "We found out pretty quickly that there was no one who had done anything quite like this before - because of the sheer size of it.”

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Germany is moving away from nuclear power and embracing renewable energy sourcesImage: picture-alliance

Renewables in the mix

BuergerEnergie Berlin now has more than 1,000 members and has attracted 5 million euros ($6.5 million) in investment. But they will need a lot more than this. The grid is valued closer to 800 million euros (about $1 billion).

"The role of the distribution grid is changing with renewable energies,” said Colell. “It used to be the last mile between the large coal or gas fired-generation power plants and the consumer. The task was pretty straight forward: get the energy to the people.”

Colell explained that decentralized generation of renewable energy through photovoltaic installations or turbines has made grid management more complicated. She doesn't think Vattenfall has done enough to integrate renewables into the energy mix. Right now, less than three percent of Berlin's energy is coming from renewable sources. That is far too low if Germany is going to wean itself off nuclear energy and fossil fuels.

But can these two young women pry control from high-level energy executives currently running the grid? They aren't only competing with Vattenfall, but at least six other applicants.

Title: Ein Informationstrefen bei BuergerEnergie Keywords: Berlin, Energie, Strom, Stromnetzwerk, BuergerEnergie Berlin, netzgipfel, Energiewende Who is the photographer: Ercan Atak When was the picture taken: 27-04-13 Description: Berliner hören eine Rede bei Netzgipfel in Berlin zu. Sie überlegen, ob sie Geld geben wollen um den Stromnetz zu übernehmen.
So far, BuergerEnergie has attracted 1,000 membersImage: Ercan Atak

Competition for grid control

The Berlin Senate will choose the next grid operator after assessing each applicant's profile, including their financial resources and experience with energy management. The group that wins will run the grid for 20 years, from 2015 to 2035.

There is another citizens' group that has taken interest in grid control. The Berliner Energietisch (Berlin Energy Table) wants the city to buy back grid control. Berlin's electricity grid was run by the state-owned company Berliner Staedtische Elektrizitaetswerke, or BEWAG, until about a decade ago when Vattenfall took over. The Berlin Energy Table needs to gather 200,000 signatures by June 10 in order to request a referendum on public grid ownership.

The group's spokesman Stefan Taschner says public ownership would bring the city closer to Germany's climate protection goals. "Energy production has a large impact on CO2 emissions, so if we have this transition to renewable energy, we also make a contribution to climate protection," he said.

DEU/Deutschland/Brandenburg/Spremberg; 01.12.2012, Kraftwerk Schwarze Pumpe; Die Sonne geht am 01. Dezember 2012 hinter dem Braunkohlekraftwerk Schwarze Pumpe unter. In dem vom schwedischen Energieunternehmen Vattenfall betriebenen Braunkohlekraftwerk Schwarze Pumpe wird Kohle aus dem Lausitzer Braunkohlerevier verstromt**Foto: Andreas Franke**
Vattenfall has based much of its German business on coal-fired electricity generationImage: picture-alliance/Andreas Frank

"Vattenfall is still relying on coal energy production, like we see here in Brandenburg, not far from Berlin. They also rely on nuclear power plants," said Taschner. "I don't think a company that relies on that energy production has an interest in decentralized renewable energy here in Berlin."

Competitive edge

Vattenfall has announced plans to increase the percentage of renewable energy in the Berlin grid. The energy giant is already converting a former district heating plant in Berlin into a biomass combined heat and power plant.

"Vattenfall and the former company BEWAG, [has] run the Berlin grid for more than 120 years, so we have the competence," said company spokesman Hannes-Stefan Hoenemann. "We have the employees and all the know-how. In the concessions tendering process that will be very important," he added.

But Vattenfall remains heavily invested in highly-polluting brown coal, which means they have an interest in pumping energy produced from fossil fuels into Berlin's grid. The competition for grid control may provide new incentive for big utilities to commit more funds to renewables, even if local groups don't gain control when Vattenfall's concession ends next year.