Yesterday I was invited by friends (thanks Kat & Deidre) to attend the ceremony for the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize at the War Memorial in San Francisco. All 6 recipients were simply amazing people from all across the globe with inspiring stories in the fight to protect their local ecosystems from mindless destruction wrought by greed and short-sightedness. Their stories are reminders for all of us that no matter how bleak things may look, each of us has the power to enact change against all odds if we stay engaged and fight for environmental justice and a more sustainable earth on a local, grassroots level.
While my friends and I agreed that each of the 6 recipients were equally inspiring (and I'll write more about them), there was one honoree whose cause couldn't have been more timely. On the same day that Japanese officials raised the level of severity of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear plant disaster to 7 -- putting it on par with the April 26, 1986 reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine -- Ursula Sladek, a mother of five from the tiny community of Schönau in Germany’s Black Forest region, was awarded this prestigious prize for creating her country’s first cooperatively-owned renewable power company in response to the disaster 25 years ago.
Here is Ms. Sladek in her own words:
What I find so inspiring and eye-opening about Ms. Sladek's and Schönau's story is that it puts the kibosh on the conventional wisdom that we are trapped in a lesser of two evils choice between nuclear and fossil fuel power. When she and her community were having the same discussion we're having now about how to reduce their energy consumption and shift to clean energy 25 years ago, she realized that the people with the most say in our energy system have the least interest in changing the status quo:
We wanted the energy companies to support us, but they said 'No,' because they wanted to sell energy, not save energy. So one day we had the idea to take over the grid.
You see, for-profit energy companies are interested in, well, profit. We just kind of take that for granted and it's part of a commonly accepted and rarely questioned paradigm, but the people of Schönau thought about that premise and it dawned on them how insane it is to waste away all their great grandchildren's resources just so that the energy companies can turn a profit.
But long before they even talked to the power company, Sladek and her community had started to pay attention to their energy consumption and thinking more critically about how energy was produced. As they began to conserve more on their own they realized how unnecessarily wasteful the main power grid system was and that if it was up to them they could run it much more efficiently and cleaner. Imagine that, people paying attention to their own habits and committing to changing the things that don't make sense.
Next thing you know, democracy happens:
The power company KWR’s license to operate the Schönau grid was up for renewal by the local government in 1991, and Sladek and her partners developed a nation-wide campaign to raise funds and support for her group to take over. The campaign led to two separate votes by the local people in favor of allowing Sladek’s group to manage the grid. Raising more than 6 million deutschmarks (equivalent to 3 million Euros) to purchase the grid from KWR through their national campaign, Sladek and her partners became energy entrepreneurs practically overnight, setting up their cooperative company, Schönau Power Supply (EWS), in order to operate as an energy provider. By 1997, Sladek’s company was in control of the Schönau grid. She took on the role of president and continues to lead the company today.
Once they had the ability to produce, buy, sell, and distribute energy, Sladek’s EWS got to work on decentralizing renewable power facilities, including solar installations, cogeneration units that both heat and power homes, small hydroelectric projects, as well as wind power and biomass. And of course, conservation is key to their business model that functions like a non-profit and is thus able to reward its customers for using less.
Today, the company has 1000 cooperative owners and provides renewable and clean power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses throughout the country. I was particularly happy to hear that they supply power to the Ritter Sport factory near my hometown of Stuttgart. My favorite chocolate ever, though this might be a dangerous piece of information. ;-)
We all know this but it bears repeating and reminding what happens when people take matters in their own hands, on a grassroots local level:
The German government is now aligned with EWS’s sustainability ideals, with a goal of deriving 100% of the country’s power from renewable sources by 2050. EWS has grown thanks to growing public support for renewable energy in Germany, and the subsequent measures taken by the government, which has encouraged investment in renewable energy projects throughout the country.
As Ms. Sladek said at the end of her acceptance speech:
Clean energy needs the engagement of everybody. The most important thing is to start now. Please act and make change.
crossposted at A World of Words