Portrait: Power, not nuclear
2 May 2011
Founder of one of the first cooperatives for producing renewable energy, Germany’s Ursula Sladeck has won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in the United States.
Twenty-five years ago the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl that passed over Europe brought with it many questions about toxic emissions and their impacts over thousands of miles. At that time, West Germany relied almost exclusively on nuclear energy and coal to fuel its growing economy. A small group of companies had a monopoly in the energy market and controlled most of the local grids.
The anti-nuclear movements, which were very active in the 80s, were winning some popular support. The powerful German companies had not yet offered consumers the choice of an energy source other than nuclear.
For Ursula Sladeck, the mother of five children in the small German town of Schönau im Schwarzwald (the Black Forest), the Chernobyl disaster sounded the alarm about the dangers of nuclear energy. Like all of her neighbours, she was alarmed by reports that radioactive residues had been detected in the playgrounds, gardens, schoolyards and farmland.
The daily life of the Sladeck family was thrown into turmoil: they could no longer eat foods grown and produced locally, or let their children play outside. Ursula and her husband joined other parents to try to come up with a system that would limit their community’s dependence on nuclear energy.
The group began what would become the project of a decade: to take control of the local power grid and, secondly, to enable all Germans to opt for energy produced from sound and sustainable sources.
Starting as a simple worried parent, Ursula Sladeck became the founder of one of the leading European companies producing green energy. After two decades, her company now supplies energy to over 100,000 households and businesses across Germany.
Initially, Sladeck and her partners formed a “nuclear-free zone” in the Black Forest region, and then set out to raise awareness on electricity production issues among their fellow citizens. The first effect was a significant drop in energy consumption in the region.
In 1991 the KWR company, which operated the Schönau power grid, had its license come up for renewal at the local administration. Sladeck and her partners launched a national fundraising network to take over the network. The campaign resulted in two referendums, in which citizens voted to give management of the system to the Sladeck group.
Funding of nearly six million German marks (about three million euros) allowed Sladeck to buy back the KWR network. With her group, she then founded the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau (EWS), which became a power supplier and regained control of the Schönau grid in 1997.
From the outset EWS’s goal has been to promote a sustainable energy future for Germany by granting financial assistance to decentralised producers of energy from renewable sources – solar, small hydro, wind energy and biomass.
The company, which operates as a non-profit organisation, currently has more than 1,000 owners, who receive small dividends. The profit is primarily reinvested in facilities producing energy from renewable sources.
The German government is now aligned with the EWS’s ideals of sustainability, with one goal being to produce all the country’s power from renewable sources by 2050. For its part, Sladek’s company aims to have one million customers by 2015.
The example of the cooperative that Ursula Sladeck founded proves that there are alternatives that can eliminate the risks of nuclear energy. However, these solutions will never come from large investors, which focus on immediate profits. Reducing dependence on nuclear energy takes time and requires the direct and active involvement of civil society. Particularly those, like Ursula Sladeck, who are concerned about the future of their children.