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The following article is from our
November 2008 issue.

Peaceful Rebels How a small town in the Black Forest opted out of nuclear power – By Jürgen Reuss

The residents of Schönau didn’t want their electricity to be nuclear-generated anymore. So they bought up their power supplier and built facilities to generate energy from alternative sources.

Schönau is a perfectly normal small town in Germany’s Schwarzwald, the southwestern Black Forest region. Its 2,500 residents are overwhelmingly Catholic and conservative and for decades, its mayors have been Christian Democrats. People earn their living from tourism, and from small and midsize companies that make mustard, sensors, wooden brushes and toothbrushes. But Schönau is different – or to be more precise, something changed on April 26, 1986.

On that day, 4,000 kilometers away, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded. Winds blew the radiation across northern and western Europe, all the way to the distant Schwarzwald. When the radioactive fallout descended on the little resort popular with tourists for its clean air, some of Schönau’s citizens suddenly had the feeling they needed to do something. It was a sentiment at the time shared by many Germans. But the residents of Schönau actually did something about it, something that made them famous far beyond the Schwarzwald as “electricity rebels.”

During a visit to Schönau, leaden, rain-soaked clouds hang over the picturesque little town. In the drizzle, the pale blue flag hanging in front of the functional flat-roofed building looks even more washed-out than usual. And yet that flag marks the town’s most unusual attraction: the headquarters of the Schönauer Electricity Works (EWS).

“Just recently, we had another visit from a school group from Italy,” said Ursula Sladek, who has been managing director of the EWS for more than 20 years now. Like so many visitors from around the globe, the students wanted to take a closer look at these stubborn citizens who snatched their electricity supply from the claws of a multinational company.

“We often receive visitors from Italy,” Ursula Sladek said. “The ‘electricity rebels’ are a regular feature of Italy’s best-known satirist Beppe Grillo’s cabaret program.” The EWS rebels are famous not just in Europe but in Japan, Canada and the U.S. as well. Regardless of where the visitors come from, the questions are always the same: Who are these people who dared to challenge – and successfully so – an apparently invincible energy supplier? How did they do it?

It all started quite harmlessly. A handful of concerned parents wanted to stop complaining and instead do something practical to bring about a nuclear-free future. At their head stood Michael Sladek and his wife Ursula, mother of five. They held energy-saving competitions, invited radiation victims from Chernobyl to spend convalescent holidays in the town and invited the local energy supplier for discussions, in the hope he could be persuaded to give up his reliance on nuclear-generated energy.

“We were naïve enough to believe that energy policies and the energy industry would change after Chernobyl,” Ursula Sladek recalled. “But nothing changed at all. So there was no alternative but to roll up our sleeves and take matters into our own hands.”

It was a long but ultimately successful fight. Today, residents of Schönau use no power produced from nuclear energy. They bought back their energy grid from the local energy monopoly, founded the independent Schönau Electricity Works and began building facilities to generate energy from alternative sources. Now they are one of the largest “eco-electricity” providers and the nucleus of a continuously expanding national network of independent power generators utilizing a range of technologies that includes cogeneration, solar, small hydroelectric plants and biogas. Around 1,200 such “rebel power stations” in Germany ensure annual carbon dioxide emissions savings of about 10,405 tons, which equals around 16,560 grams less nuclear waste each year.

The town of 2,500 in the Black Forest has had the role of climate savior thrust upon it. And there is no doubt that Schönau was in the vanguard of the fight against Big Energy. But have the residents here always been so rebellious?

The villagers themselves emphatically reject the label. “We are not a village of rebels, we are totally normal,” Michael Sladek has said throughout the years. He is right. These “rebels” have never acted outside the law. On the contrary, their reputation for rebelliousness comes from having demanded their constitutionally protected democratic rights and using every available legal avenue to secure them.

But politicians and energy company managers did consider rebellious the idea of empowered citizens demanding a say in sensitive issues. Undeterred, a group of residents formed an action committee to try and convince the town’s elected representatives to opt out of nuclear power. Eventually, the rebels themselves were elected onto the local council. When they were unsuccessful there, they mobilized the community to hold a referendum – and won. Schönau decided to disconnect itself from the nuclear power grid.

But then some Schönau citizens began to have doubts. They were worried about handing over provision of their electricity to an anti-nuclear power group? So a second referendum was held. This time the rebels organized a campaign unprecedented for Schönau: professional, dogged, intelligent and emotional.

Election campaigns are decided emotionally, explains Michael Sladek in a documentary about the electricity rebels, appropriately titled “The Schönau Feeling.” It was only during the second, narrowly won, referendum that the rebels realized how central “the Schönau Feeling” was to their cause. What set Schönau apart was the feeling of being certain that they could achieve something others had always said was impossible.

“You are an anti-nuclear power group and you want to run an electricity works?” Yes, we can do that.

“You think you can raise a phenomenal 6.7 million German marks to buy the electricity grid?” Yes, we can do that.

“That thought – that it was too expensive or it was impossible – remained stuck in people’s heads,” said Ursula Sladek. “But there are a lot of people who don’t just want to deposit their money anonymously in the bank, people who want to put their money into projects they can stand behind.”

That remains true for the Schönau rebels even today. They have drafted plans to buy up the nuclear share of the city of Freiburg’s energy supply and replace it with renewable energy sources. For the moment, the mayor of Freiburg – which has a growing reputation as Germany’s ‘Green City’ – has said that is impossible.

The rebels also want to buy up Schönau’s natural gas supply network. Can it be done? “Yes, it can,” said Ursula Sladek. Only in Schönau? “No. We’re nothing special,” she added. “But that is the beauty of it: If something like this can happen in Schönau, then it can, in fact, happen everywhere.”

Pictures above: A small town and its most fervent rebel Ursula Sladek: Schönau exclusively uses renewable energy sources.