How renewables are powering, empowering Germany’s rural economy (Energy Feature)

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Mainz, April 30 (IANS) Tobias Huster is a young grape cultivator and winemaker in Ingelheim in the countryside of this town who wants to expand his family business beyond 200,000 wine bottles annually.

But with farm earnings falling owing to frequent bad weather, growers like him in the predominantly rural federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, known for picturesque towns and fascinating castles, are reaping the benefits of tapping renewable sources too.

“There is up to 30 per cent less harvest in extreme years, mainly owing to frost and drought. Changes in climatic conditions are noticeable and re-occurring frequently,” Huster, 38, told this visiting IANS correspondent.

“This April one can feel the pinch of the sun. It’s bad for my vineyards, but not for my solar panels,” he said, pointing to the rooftops of farm buildings carpeted with photovoltaic panels.

Solar and wind energy have now become irreplaceable sources of electricity in this area of western Germany, between the Mosel and the Rhine rivers, a hub for agriculture and wineries dotted with small mountain ranges.

The Huster winery has a rooftop 80KW photovoltaic plant set up with an outlay of 90,000 euros. The family cashes in on selling surplus renewable power to the regional grid.

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The Husters are one of thousands of beneficiaries of the citizen-owned, highly-decentralised energy system across Germany named “Energiewende”, which aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022 with the development of renewable energy with the financial help of local banks and regional soft-loan programmes.

Rhineland-Palatinate is a front-runner state in citizen’s involvement and in setting up ambitious renewable targets. Its Rhein-Hunsruck district, with about 102,000 inhabitants, generated from local renewable sources approximately three times the amount of electricity it consumed.

Through the citizen energy cooperatives, which banks on the self-help concept of “money of the village for the village” evolved by cooperative pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, 268 wind power stations with a capacity of 748MW are generating more than one billion kilowatt hours (kWh) per year in Rhein-Hunsruck alone.

“The income from wind farms has helped us to realise sustainable village development concepts for our citizens,” an elated Volker Wichter, Mayor of the Neuerkirch municipality in the region, told IANS.

Most of the municipalities receive seven million euros of annual leasing income for the duration of 20-25 years. This income is used for securing public services of general interest, explained Rhein-Hunsruck’s former chief executive, Bertram Fleck.

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“Twenty years ago we had practically no energy generation in our region. Twenty years on, renewable energy investments worked like a jackpot for local businesses,” he said.

“We have laid focus on energy efficiency in old and new buildings. More than 3,000 rooftops have been equipped with photovoltaic installations. Local communities have leased out their land for installing wind power plants and they are annually getting hundreds of thousands of euros,” Fleck added.

Through income from leasing local land to wind park operators, the Neuerkirch municipality has commissioned the largest district heating network using solar thermal and biomass energy for 150 households, abandoning the old fossil fuel system.

To be fair, the clamour against wind parks and new power lines is also growing louder across Germany, where a third of the electricity used comes from renewable sources. Citizens and green activists question the impact of wind turbines on human health, wildlife and the environment.

“Government policies have enabled fast-paced development of wind power at the expense of birds, especially the threatened species like the red kite,” Cosima Lindemann, a senior expert with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, told IANS.

Bjorn Peters, who heads an anti-wind power citizen alliance with a support of 9,000-plus members, favoured a “controlled and moderate energy transition” in Rhineland-Palatinate and the neighbouring Saarland state.

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“We are demanding that a minimum distance of 2 km be set between the wind turbines and nearby residential buildings. Moreover, nature reserves and the bird migration corridors should be excluded from wind power expansion,” he said.

The bright side of the energy revolution is that by 2015 around 100 million euros had been infused into the local economy of Rhineland-Palatinate for the construction of renewable energy plants, which now creates a regional value of more than 40 million euros per year.

Built in 2015, the 360m-long and 100m above ground Geierlay bridge between the towns of Morsdorf and Sosberg is a harbinger of local prosperity. A profitable location for wind power, Morsdorf is home to 11 wind turbines.

With the help of additional income of around 200,000 euros per year, the municipality built one of the longest rope suspension bridges in Germany that attracted more than 570,000 visitors in its first two years.

(Vishal Gulati was in Germany for a media study tour of the Clean Energy Wire or CLEW. He can be contacted at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)

–IANS

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