We the Power: How community energy can free people and help the planet

This interview by Emanuela Barbiroglio is published in The Beam #12. Order it to read more on the subject.


 

Born and raised in the German city of Schönau, Sebastian Sladek learned the meaning of the word “community” quite soon. Words like “energy”, “power” and “rebellion” immediately followed.

“Our city was small and traditionally conservative, a rural area in the middle of the Black Forest. My parents too were conservative people, always believing in what politicians say and never engaging,” he recalls. “Then Chernobyl switched something in their brains.”

“When the tragedy happened, we were deeply impacted and yet the administration didn’t have a plan. This opened my parents’ eyes.”

At his dining room table at home, Sladek witnessed endless meetings between his parents and their comrades-in-arms. They were taking over the Schönau power grid and founding their own as a civil society. In 1994 Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS) was founded: finally a green-electricity supplier.

That might be the reason why Sebastian grew up with the firm belief that his studies would have brought him as far as possible from all of this. So he chose archaeology and, after, started his first excavation experiences.

Despite his efforts to find another path, a passion for the “community” drew him more intensely back to Schönau. In 2011, Sladek returned to the place that made his childhood so peculiar and became a member of EWS’ executive board. “I switched from history to the future,” he laughs.

Now EWS is different from the past, but the Schönauer Gefühl (the spirit of Schönau) remains and the basic idea never changed: together we can make a radical difference. As a cooperative company, the board communicates with members, who in turn help shape the company as partners. In addition, they involve many other stakeholders, including local municipalities, environmental protection organisations and cooperatives to promote climate protection.

By opting for EWS green-electricity, customers direct the cash flow towards achieving a higher target. The product becomes part of the solution to climate change and, at the same time, the customer becomes part of the community working for a better world.

The true story of Sladek’s parents, the original Schönau “power rebels”, still inspires EWS’ goal of preserving the planet as a place worth living.

“There are always times when people feel depressed and powerless, until they meet a group that helps them come back to power. Being a group has always been my family’s solution, my siblings and I knew how it feels to be representative of a minority’s opinion and how to win.”

 

Photos by Joppe Rog. Sebastian Sladek, member of EWS Schönau’s executive board and one of the people whose story is told in Patagonia’s feature-length documentary film on the citizen-led renewable community energy movement in Europe. Photos by Joppe Rog. Sebastian Sladek, member of EWS Schönau’s executive board and one of the people whose story is told in Patagonia’s feature-length documentary film on the citizen-led renewable community energy movement in Europe.

 

Participation is key. “You need to know that you can make a difference and you have to do it, but facing challenges is only possible through solidarity.”

Of course, Sladek’s family and friends had the privilege of not being afraid of repression “but that’s why we have the responsibility to both fight for future generations and defend others’ rights together with ours”.

Movements such as Fridays for Future send a message of hope, by allowing people to be actors in the process. “Taking part in an anti-nuclear protest with 215,000 people gives you a real strong feeling.”

Pioneers from the ‘90s had a long way in front of them and yet, after almost 70 years since the first reactor started operations in 1955, Germany is going to phase out nuclear power. By the end of 2022, it will be a memory.

“It took us years, but we made it.” While years are precisely what we are missing and, Sladek admits, his greatest fear is that we are wasting time.

That’s why even more communities have to take action. The good news is that it is already happening.

A new project by Patagonia is significantly called “We the Power” and includes a feature-length documentary shining a light on the citizen-led renewable community energy movement across Europe. Directed by David Garrett Byars, from the multi-award winning Patagonia film Public Trust, it will be screened at virtual and in-person events across Europe in combination with live presentations featuring local pioneers, from April 2021.

EWS Schönau is part of a film, alongside three other stories from the UK, Spain and the European federation of citizens energy cooperatives (REScoop.eu).

“All these initiatives are led by very brave visionaries and very persistent people,” says Birgit Grossmann, enviro and marketing manager for Patagonia Germany.

The film will demonstrate the benefits that energy communities bring, both to locals and to the health of our home planet. It will also show people how they can get involved with the movement – or start their own – in their local area.

Indeed, the campaign dreams big: inspiring a citizen-led movement towards energy democracy across Europe, while educating on the crucial role that we can play in the transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy sources.

 

Photos by Joppe Rog. Sladek’s parents, the EWS Schönau founding members Michael and Ursula, in their home where they held many meetings with the community throughout the years. Photos by Joppe Rog. Sladek’s parents, the EWS Schönau founding members Michael and Ursula, in their home where they held many meetings with the community throughout the years.

 

Grossmann is absolutely sure about this: “Citizens have to watch carefully what renewables are according to corporations.”

Meanwhile, Patagonia wants to help groups like EWS promote, legislate or organise around renewable energy community solutions and their transcription into country-level law.

Patagonia believes that the predominant model of big energy companies and fossil fuel production must be changed, if Europe is to have any chance of getting to the net zero CO2 emissions level required by 2050 and stabilise global warming at 1.5°C.

“If we want to be serious about the Paris agreement, this is definitely necessary,” Grossmann adds. “But energy democracy has other advantages, like the possibility for local communities to make their own choices and see where their electricity is coming from, rather than blindly accepting what companies give to them. It also prepares the way for spreading renewables because acceptance is key. Finally, from an economic point of view it stimulates local employment and boosts it with money that would normally go to big external investors.

Today, one million European citizens are part of the movement. By 2050, more than 260 million people could be involved, generating 45% of the EU’s electricity demand.

So how does it work? It’s easy. All citizens have the right to join an energy community through becoming a member or co-owner. Every person who joins gets a share of the profits and is usually given the opportunity to buy energy at a fair price. As active participants in this growing movement, they are included in decisions such as where to invest and how to set prices.

In Sladek’s words, “the power of citizens is the power of mass”.