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Ursula Sladek: Taking Back The Grid [Video]

A German activist who helped found Germany’s first community-owned utility thinks citizens shouldn’t leave big decisions to power companies and elected officials. She has just won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

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Ursula Sladek of Germany created her country’s first cooperatively-owned renewable power company. This week, her work won her the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded each year to grassroots environmentalists on each of the continents.

Sladek is defined by two stances: first, an opposition to nuclear power and fossil fuels, and second, a commitment to the notion of democratic governance of the grid. Of course, she sees the two as related: “I think the change from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable is such a great task that you really need everybody in it,” she tells Fast Company today from Washington, moments before heading off to receive congratulations from President Barack Obama.

Her road from there to here was paved with the rubble of Chernobyl. At the time of the disaster, West Germany relied on nuclear and coal energy, with just a few companies holding a monopoloy over the energy market and controlling the grids. Sladek, from a small town in the Black Forest region of Germany, began hearing reports of radioactive residue in gardens and playgrounds.

Sladek wouldn’t stand for this. She, her husband, and concerned neighbors banded together and tried to demand that their region not rely on nuclear power. Finding that the power companies weren’t listening, Sladek realized that citizens couldn’t just lobby those with the power; citizens needed to claim power themselves–to “take back the grid.”

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She founded a group called Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future; that eventually evolved into Germany’s first community-owned utility company, the Schönau Power Supply (EWS, per its German initials). EWS grew into not just an activism success story but a business success story; it raised 5.8 million deutschemarks to buy back the grid from the utility company, and built solar, wind, and water-powered plants. It now offers decentralized renewable energy to 100,000 customers. Among them is Germany’s chocolate company, Ritter Sport. EWS has been characterized as a “non-profit/for-profit hybrid”; it reported saled of $50 million in 2008, and its profits are reinvested in green energy.

Sladek says she feels that Germany is moving, gradually, in a direction she thinks safer and saner. A prominent German politician who had supported nuclear power changed her mind, saying “the world after Fukushima is no the same as before,” according to Sladek. (Fukushima was just rated a disaster on par with Chernobyl.) Sladek says she opposed nuclear energy in all instances, finding the risks too great, and the pollution too permanent. In the Black Forest region, she says, you still should not eat mushrooms that grow there or the pigs that roam there–this 25 years after, and some 1,000 miles away from, Chernobyl.

Sladek is a proponent of radical democracy, saying that citizens should not only reassume control over the grids and utilities but might consider having a more active role in controlling other aspects of infrastructure. “They might take over responsibility in many questions in public life. It would be more democratic not only to vote every several years, but also in the meantime to help with these questions.”

Sladek was honored along with a rhino conservationist in Zimbabwe, an ecosystem defender from Russia, a biologist from Indonesia, a gold mining opponent from El Salvador, and an environmental justice activist from the Texas Gulf Coast. They’ll be honored today at a ceremony at the Smithsonian.

[Photos: Goldman Environmental Prize]

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Email David Zax, the author of this post, or follow him on Twitter.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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