The recent G8 Summit achieved one important result. It showed that too many of our leaders still think energy "security" can be achieved by calling for an increase in the rate of oil extraction at the expense of human and ecosystem health.
They are looking for security in the wrong places. For a real lesson in energy security, and a glimpse of the healthy local economy of the future, they could start with a small town in Germany, just one of many in northern Europe that are charting a course toward true energy autonomy, based on renewable sources of energy.
The town of Freiamt generates its entire electricity needs from locally owned renewable sources, and then sells a 30 per cent surplus to generate revenue.
Freiamt is a cluster of villages of 4,300 people in the Black Forest. Its economy is dominated by farming, tourism and small-scale forestry. For the burghers of Freiamt, questions of "the environment" come down to how to ensure that the soil, forests, water, air and natural beauty of the region are preserved and yet still harnessed to maximize economic and social benefit.
The same converging forces threatening towns and cities globally (shrinking natural resources, peaking supplies of oil and uranium, climate change and tightening competition for all of these as a result of population growth), make Freiamt as potentially vulnerable as any other community. But vulnerable is not in the vocabulary of the people of Freiamt.
For the last five years, Freiamt has been pursuing the goal of total energy self-sufficiency. While the strategy is still young, it is clearly working, in a way that defies conventional beliefs, not just in Canada and the rest of the G8, but in parts of Germany as well. At least those parts that still believe that energy security lies in big generation stations, big energy companies and big investment.
Proving that "small is beautiful," Freiamt generates so much power from its small-scale renewable sources that it is turning an annual profit. It did so by adding four wind turbines and 800 rooftop photovoltaic systems to its existing small-scale hydro and biomass installations. Freiamt now generates 13 million kilowatt hours of power. Since it only consumes 10 million locally, the surplus three million are sold to other parts of Germany via the national grid, generating income for residents and businesses.
The Freiamt story is as much about "power" as energy. Although much of the technical expertise and all of the equipment comes from outside Freiamt, the citizens were adamant that they wanted to own their future, by owning and controlling the turbines and the rooftop photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal installations. The wind turbines are jointly owned, as are many of the solar panel arrays on buildings such as the soccer clubhouse. Other PV systems are privately owned and installed on homes, barns and garages.
Biogas digesters have been built on several farm properties in a joint "co-op" arrangement whereby a group of citizens invests together, spreads the risk and shares the revenue. In addition to earning a significant return for the investors, these biogas systems have provided a holistic solution to the problems of farm waste that can pollute rural water supplies and emit greenhouse gasses such as methane.
Several factors are critical to the success of the Freiamt project. First is citizen support. The buy-in of individuals was achieved when they became convinced that neither the wind turbines nor the large solar arrays would cause significant visual or noise pollution and that the potential financial return would be a safe investment, with the money being retained locally.
Underpinning the financial case is a federal law that triggered an explosion of renewable energy investment in Germany. The so-called "feed-in tariff" guarantees that renewable energy suppliers receive a premium rate from energy companies for the electricity they feed into the national grid. This guarantee provides the certainty individuals and banks need to invest in renewables.
As a result, tens of thousands of Germans and dozens of towns, co-ops and companies have installed renewable energy systems.
Freiamt is not alone. Other towns like Dardesheim, Halberstadt and Mauenheim are producing all or much of their energy needs, and many more are known to be developing similar plans.
Freiamt has built a low-carbon economy, and is moving steadily closer to being a no-carbon community. If things get rough out there beyond the Black Forest, it is capable of functioning and thriving without the continual intravenous feeding that other places require from the power grid, natural gas pipeline or supertanker.
As long as the sun shines, the wind blows and the grass grows, Freiamt will be making energy and selling it at a profit. That is resilience.
Freiamt offers us a glimpse of what a thriving economy built on a healthy environment can look like. A glimpse of what any town or province in Canada could accomplish, in its own way and on its own terms. A glimpse of real energy security.
David Chernushenko is an Ottawa-based writer and filmmaker specializing in sustainability issues. He produced the film Be the Change (www.livinglightly.ca/film).
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008