The cooperative was started in 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. At the time many people in Germany believed that energy policies and the energy industry would change to non-nuclear sources of energy production, but this did not happen. The inhabitants of Schönau realised that if they wanted to free themselves from nuclear power and embrace safe and clean energy, they had to make this happen themselves. The result was a movement in Schönau which initially organised energy saving contests and ultimately decided to bid for taking over the city’s grid, owned at the time by the regional energy monopoly, KWR. After a long financial and legal battle, the Schönau cooperative was able to actually buy the grid from KWR (the money having been raised through buying shares in the cooperative, but also through direct donations). In 1999 the 650 members of the cooperative finally formed the Elektrizitätswerke Schönau GbR (EWS) and the company began building facilities to generate energy from alternative sources.
The Schönau energy revolution was created largely through small hydropower plants on the lush region’s many rivers, but also through solar panels, windmills and combined heat and power generation plants. Initially providing one million kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy to 1,700 local customers, today EWS provides more than 400 million kWh to 100,000-plus customers throughout Germany. The aim is for the company to sign up its millionth customer within the next four years.
EWS is not anymore located only in Schönau. EWS promotes new, ecological power generation plants with its so-called Sonnencents (Sun Cents). Included in the rates that EWS customers pay, these cents have thus far helped finance an impressive 1,450 new plants all around Germany, on windy fields, sundrenched rooftops or in basements in the form of washing machine-sized heating aggregates. Around 1,200 such “rebel power stations” in Germany ensure annual carbon dioxide emissions savings of about 10,405 tons.
Schönau is not an example of single fighting, it is a concept of peaceful rebellion of empowered citizens demanding a say on sensitive issues. It promotes the transformation of energy policy, a stop in climate change, and the elimination of nuclear power and it shows that these are not only topics for big politics. The wider the network of decentralised production plants and green electricity customers, the less dependent the community becomes on nuclear and coal energy. This story is an inspiring example of how small- or mid-size towns can generate their own clean electricity and stand up to the unclean energy imposed by some of the big energy suppliers.