Travel-Log – Vermonters’ Energy Tour of Germany

Travel-Log – Vermonters’ Energy Tour of Germany

9/28/12  Our final day brought us to the town of Morbach in western Germany, not far from Luxembourg, where we visited Energielandschaft (Energy Landscape Morbach –, a former US Army base and storehouse for tons of US munitions during the Cold War. We were led on a tour by facilities manager Michael Grehl, who explained that ten years ago, town leaders decided to turn the abandoned base into a comprehensive and innovative renewable energy park.  Today the 300-plus open acres host an information center surrounded by 2.1 MW of solar panels, 14 wind turbines (each 2 MW in capacity and 100 meters high), and a biogas plant fueled by manure, corn, grass, and other crops from 15 nearby farms (producing both electricity for the grid and heat for an adjacent wood-pellet manufacturer). Near the center of the base, two underground bomb shelters, originally built by the Army to withstand a Soviet nuclear attack, now house two dramatic exhibits on climate change and the Cold War.

In total, the former Army base produces more energy than is used by the 19 villages and 11,000 inhabitants in the region and provides additional municipal income. In addition, the project is a public/private partnership with a company called UmWelt und Energie (UWE), which sells pellet stoves and manufactures log homes and wood pellets on-site. UWE built the wood pellet factory on-site not only to take advantage of the waste wood from its home-manufacturing process, but to use the waste heat from the biogas plant. The project has been a huge success in generating renewable energy, jobs, and income for the nearby communities.

As the trip draws to a close, we are inspired by the many innovative community renewable energy projects we saw in every region of Germany. A fundamental key to success there is the German feed-in tariff, which guarantees fixed, long-term prices for renewable power. (Unlike Vermont’s feed-in tariff law, Germany does not cap the number of projects that can avail themselves of this nationwide price). But most impressive of all is what we saw in the German people – a supportive local public that benefits from the projects and a group of individuals dedicated to seeing the projects through to completion. At farmers’ cooperatives, farm digesters, and solar farms all around Bavaria, we met small-town, smart, salt-of-the-earth people doing extraordinary things for themselves and their communities with ambitious, high-tech renewable energy projects. Many of these rural people are conservative, but they’ve figured out how to make money for their communities, save money for themselves, and keep everything local – like an ambitious local food movement that grows energy as its crop, with an aim at steady revenue, jobs, and independence. We see this kind of enthusiasm as critical to the success of community renewable projects in Vermont as well, and we look forward, upon our return, to talking and working with others to move similar efforts forward in Vermont.

Finally, we are profoundly grateful to the Heinrich Boehll Foundation, which sponsored the trip to foster trans-Atlantic sharing of information, to the many friendly and hospitable Germans who eagerly shared information with us about their success and to our fellow US traveling companions who are working hard on similar efforts around the country.

Bob Walker and Margaret Cheney



9/27/12 – This was a moving and inspiring day as wevisited the historic dividing line between East and West Germany and two very different energy cooperatives. For more photos, click here.
Our first stop was off a rural highway, in a remote part of Bavaria, where we stopped on the former border to see a scattering of hillside sculptures and monuments to those who died trying to escape from East Germany. Most eerie were our climb up an abandoned border guard tower, once manned by soldiers with automatic weapons, and a sculpture outline of a defector being shot.

We were accompanied by Agrokraft CEO Michael Diestel (see below), who told of his aristocratic ancestors and the contrast of life under the Communist government following the war. Disparities in jobs and income between former East and West territories continue today, some 23 years after reunification. But the rural energy coop model shows hope of prosperity for farmers on both sides of the line in the Bavarian region.

More uplifting was our visit to the biogas plant owned by the Grosbardorf Cooperative. The coop has 25 farmer members who produce corn or livestock manure for the digester. The 635 kW digester consumes 28 tons/day of 60% corn and 40% manure, to produce combined heat and power. Individual farmers derive income from the material they supply to the digester, and all coop members earn profits from the 9 cents euro/kWh for the electricity produced (the feed-in tariff rate mandated by law) and from the revenue from their new district heat system.

The biogas plant itself uses 15% of the heat produced, and the rest is piped to homes in the village and a brand-new manufacturing company with 130 employees. The company, which makes parts for automobile, medical, and small machine industries, built the plant close to the biogas plant specifically to take advantage of the inexpensive district heat. The manufacturer paid 7,000 euros to connect to the district system, as opposed to the 100,000 euros it would have cost to install their own heating system. This is the first cooperative biogas plant in the country, and it has been a huge success.

In addition to the biogas co-gen system, the Grosbardorf Cooperative has built solar installations, including a 110 kW PV system that not only pays dividends for its cooperative members, but doubles as a roof for the town’s soccer stand. The coop also owns a 1.9 MW solar farm, built in 2005 on 7.5 hectares. These projects were fist conceived of by Agrokraft, a renewable energy consulting and development company formed by the Bavarian Farmers’ Association and the Agricultural Machinery Syndicate.  Agrokraft ‘s mission is to plan, initiate, implement, and optimize renewable energy and agricultural projects.  Yesterday we talked with Agrokraft’s CEO Michael Distel about the cooperative model that has become so successful in Bavaria.

This afternoon we traveled to Gafenwohr to talk with the town’s mayor, Helmut Amschler, who helped found an energy cooperative of 19 communities in 2007.  To date, the coop has raised 45.5 million euros from its members and built 22.3 MW of solar PV systems, equal to 52% of the electricity used in member towns, earning members 4% return on investment.

By the way, retail electric rates in Germany are set by four unregulated investor-owned utilities, which charge an average residential rate of 25 cents euro per kWh (just over 32 US cents). This is high, but it’s offset by the fact that Germans typically use 3 to 5 times less electricity than the average American. Commercial and industrial electric rates are dramatically lower than the residential rate — just 7 to 8 euro cents per kWh.

Tomorrow it’s off to visit a municipally owned energy project. For more photos, click here.


9/25/12 – This morning we met with representatives from the “Green Energy and Efficiency Department” in the federal Ministry of Economics and Technology – in charge of energy efficiency and grid connection policies. Germany has numerous standards in place for efficiency of buildings, appliances, and vehicles. For thermal efficiency, an annual appropriation of 1.5 billion euros provides low-interest loans and grants — a 70-80% discount on audits, for example. Government procurement laws also require life-cycle analysis and energy criteria, and public buildings must display their energy rating in a prominent place. Just as was attempted last year in the Legislature, there is mandatory labeling at time of sale or rent of every building and home. Margaret will bring back a copy of their building thermal labeling laws to see if they might be helpful in re-crafting Vermont’s proposed time-of-sale building efficiency rating law.

Germany has made huge strides in renewables in the past decade, expanding from 3% of the supply in 2000 to over 25% today. They see this as largely due to the feed-in-tariff law passed in 1990. This is the law that Margaret mimicked when she drafted Vermont’s Standard Offer bill, which has also helped expand renewable development in Vermont.

This afternoon we went to the 4th Congress of 100% Renewable Energy Regions in Kassel, Germany. Margaret gave a presentation about energy efforts in Vermont, and we participated in an international roundtable discussion with 50 attendees from Germany, Poland, Austria, Japan, and our group of 9 from the US. The general consensus was that the financial benefit to local residents and businesses was the primary driving factor, along with local job development (over 370,000 German renewable jobs), in the great growth of renewables.

Renewable proponents in Germany have heard cautions similar to those in the US from grid controllers, who argue that only small amounts of renewables can be tolerated on the grid without causing severe problems.  But a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory apparently determined that the US grid could handle up to 80% renewably supplied generation.

The Congress drew 800 and reminded Bob and Margaret of the annual Renewable Energy Vermont conference in Burlington.

Tomorrow morning we’ll have more discussions with organizers of the 100% Congress, and then on to Bavaria to meet one of the leaders of the Bavarian Farmers’ Association who has been at the forefront of helping farmers benefit from the renewable economy.

For more photos, click here.




9/24/12 – This was a long, full day of meetings with German government officials who shared lots of insights into how Germany has made a successful jump start on the way to a renewable energy future.  We met with representatives from the Ministry for the Environment,with four members of Parliament (three from the Green Party and one from the conservative party known as the Christian Social Union), and with an official from the German Cooperative Association.

Probably the biggest take-away for me from today is that one of the keys to success of many renewable projects in Germany is the local coop structure that allows individuals in regions proposed for renewable development to have a say in how the project is developed – one member, one vote – and to benefit from it financially by purchasing shares in the coop – starting at 50 Euros, with the average investment about 3,000 Euros. (1 Euro = $1.29, today).  Typical return on investment is 4%. But coop members believe they are getting much more than the financial return. They are getting a social return on their investment. Local jobs are created. The region and country become less dependent on fossil and nuclear fuels.  And energy spending is staying in the community.  As Joseph Goeppel  – a forest engineer for 25 years, and member of Parliament with the Christian Social Union party in Bavaria (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party) for 10 years – put it, renewables is as much a social movement as it is a technical movement.

Tomorrow we meet with the Ministry of Economics and Technology and then take a 120 mph train to the 4th Congress on 100% Renewable Energy Regions, where we will participate on an international panel about renewables and Margaret Cheney will speak on Vermont’s initiatives on renewable energy.

A little cultural note. Berlin is an amazing city, with so much new and VERY modern architecture – sleek lines with lots of glass and steel – mostly build since reunification, with a scattering of old stone and concrete buildings, pock-marked with bullet holes, reminding you of the devastation that beheld this country and this city some 67 years ago.

For more photos, click here.




9/23/12 – After uneventful but tiring travel by bus and jet from Vermont, we made it to Berlin.  We had this day to catch up on our sleep, relax and do a little site-seeing. It was a beautiful day so Margaret and I walked for a couple of hours, visiting Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Monument, the Reichstag (the center of government) and the huge and beautiful Tiergarten park. For pictures, click here.

This evening, we had a wonderful walking historic tour with a guide around some of the older parts of East Berlin, then to a delicious Italian restraunt for dinner. Exhausted. Off to bed as we have a big day of meetings with the Ministry of the Environment, members of Parliament and political party representatives tomorrow.


Two Vermonters – State Representative Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich) and Bob Walker, director of the Sustainable Energy Resource Group (SERG) based in Thetford – will join eight other Americans on a week-long visit to Germany, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, for policymakers and advocates who are engaged in the advancement of renewable energy at the local and regional level.

Keep checking back here to follow their week tour across Germany. Margaret and Bob are scheduled to leave for Germany September 23, 2012.

Margaret Cheney, vice chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, has co-sponsored many of Vermont’s recent renewable energy bills, including the country’s first state-wide feed-in tariff and the creation of Property Assessed Clean Energy districts. 
Bob Walker started the region’s first town energy committee and has promoted energy conservation, efficiency, and renewables in Vermont and New Hampshire, especially in the Upper Valley region, since 2002. He is the director of SERG.