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These Citizens Want To Take Over Berlin’s Electric Grid

It’s the opposite of privatization: A group of citizens in the German capital are attempting to purchase the rights to manage the city’s electricity in the name of the people, so that they can make more responsible decisions about where the city’s power comes from.

These Citizens Want To Take Over Berlin’s Electric Grid
Electricity via Shutterstock

Germany gets about 25% of its electricity from renewable sources, making it a world leader. But not all parts of the country are the same. While some places are already up to 100%, others are still in the single digits. Germany’s Energiewende (or “energy transition”) is impressive–but, for the moment, patchy. Berlin, for example, only has about 1.5% renewables: much of its power comes from brown coal.

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More than a few Berliners now want to change that, and, in the process, reform something even more fundamental: who runs the grid. Chiefly through the efforts of two young groups, Berlin is in the midst not only of a debate about sources–which is what figures here–but also about the energy system itself.

Next year, the city of Berlin is re-offering a 20-year contract to manage its electricity grid. And several non-traditional groups have come forward. They complain that the current operator, Vattenfall, gets 90% of its energy from coal, and could do more on energy efficiency. More deeply, they want the city to make its own day-to-day energy decisions.

“The underlying grid operation doesn’t give enough freedom to make decisions,” says Arwen Colell, co-founder of one of the groups, BürgerEnergie (People’s Energy). “Vattenfall are doing only what the law provides, not going beyond what is required. It’s not going out of its way, and we think it should go out of its way.”

Colell also wants to keep more of the profits from grid management in the city. “There is money in grid operations. It’s a reliable asset here. It is made in the city and goes to Sweden. We don’t think that’s necessary. It should be part of local value creation; the money should stay in the city.”

Colell, who graduated with a degree in political science in 2011, has been working with her friend Luise Neumann-Cosel. They’ve done a lot to put the grid (not normally a subject of dinner conversation) on the map. “When we started, there was no public debate on the local grid whatsoever. That’s something that has really changed. We see a lot more movement with the political actors, and the parties are watching the application process very carefully.”

BürgerEnergie wants a public-private partnership to run grid: the city would take 51%, and a private group would hold the rest. A separate group, Berliner Energietisch (Berlin Energy Table) has a slightly different proposal (though similar ends). It wants the city to take the grid fully back into public hands. To this end, it has gathered 265,000 signatures, forcing a referendum on the ownership question this November.

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More widely in Germany there’s a growing movement for Rekommunalisierung. About a third of cities, towns, and districts are at some stage of talking about communalization, according to a survey commissioned by KPMG. There are dozens of cooperatives in the countryside. Cities, like Berlin, are rethinking decisions in the 1990s to sell off grid management.

And governments are looking to spread the investment load. The state of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, is offering shares in new power lines along the west coast.

Six groups are taking part in Berlin’s application process at the moment, including Vattenfall, a Dutch operator called Alliander, and China’s State Grid. The next phase for BürgerEnergie is to get past the validation stage, and put together a technical proposal. Colell says: “We want to be important enough to the public debate that the city will consider very carefully before kicking us out.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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