Exploring the future of energy: how protecting the climate promotes structural change and local value creation

Presenting successful solutions for the energy transition is an important pathway to strengthening Europe’s efforts to protect the climate. Although such efforts can appear costly, they also bring new opportunities for investing in local value chains, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge through technical innovations. Climate protection measures also can also bring new prospects for those in rural areas and regions affected by structural change.

Taking place from 3 to 5 November 2017, shortly before the COP23 climate conference in Bonn, the third three-day media tour in the “Climate and Energy Transformation in Action” series sought to provide Central and Eastern European journalists with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of these themes, and included visits to the wind test field Grevenbroich in the lignite mining area of North Rhine-Westphalia, a variety of energy projects in the district of Rhine-Hunsrück, and a citizens energy cooperative in Wolfhagen in northern Hesse.

On the first day, the participating journalists travelled to Grevenbroich to gain an insight into the current status of the energy transition in Germany. The morning kicked off with a presentation by Benjamin Dannemann from the German Agency for Renewable Energies (AEE) providing some broader context and information about the economic aspects of the energy transition in terms of employment figures, investments in renewable energies and regional value added through renewables.

This introduction also showed the challenges of structural change using the example from a recent Prognos study on the development of employment in the energy sector in Brandenburg. This showed that while the phasing out of lignite would be accompanied by a decline in employment, there were significant potential for an increase in employment in the field of renewable energies. Dannemann highlighted that “the challenge is to synchronize the development of jobs in renewable energies and the phasing out of employment in the ‘old energy world’”.

Managing structural change

The second talk of the morning took up the topic of structural change and economic development in the "new energy world". Benjamin Böhme from the company Windtestfeld Grevenbroich explained how wind energy had developed from a niche technology to one of the main branches of energy sector. Böhme also introduced his company’s specialized services for examining and testing a wide variety of wind turbine models. His presentation included both details of emerging technologies in wind energy and information about how engineers from the conventional energy industry could enter new fields of work in the wind sector.

In the afternoon, the participants visited the wind test field Grevenbroich to see first-hand the structural changes taking place in the course of the energy transition. The wind test field was erected on top of a spoil heap from the Garzweiler lignite mine, and from the wind test field the participants had a perfect view of Neurath power station. The contrast between the gigantic lignite-fired power plant with a total output of about 4,2 megawatts and the modern wind turbines of generating just 3 megawatts each vividly showed the challenges of transitioning from the old energy system built around large central power plants to a new energy world based on a decentralized system of smaller generation plants.

To reflect further on the various aspects of structural change in the energy sector, the journalists then met with the renowned energy journalist Jürgen Döschner. Organized and moderated by the journalistic network Clean Energy Wire (CLEW), this discussion provided an opportunity to engage in a lively debate about the political positions of the German parties and the integrity of German politicians’ ambitions to reach the climate protection goals of the Paris Agreement. The discussion not only allowed the journalists to get to know the German perspective, but also the situation in their different countries.

Value creation in rural areas

Moving on from the lignite mining area, a landscape shaped by the “old energy world”, the tour headed next to the Rhine-Hunsrück district in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. This district is a shining example of the advantages of the “new energy world”. The district’s climate protection manager Frank-Michael Uhle presented the district’s development from a rural region to an energy region, which had experienced the major economic benefits of transitioning to a more decentralized energy system. Representatives of Westnetz, a subsidiary of the energy utility Innogy, also presented a SINTEG project covering several federal states.

The Designetz project analyzes the conversion of the power supply from large and central power plants to small decentralized power plants, and the challenges of having an electricity supply dependent on weather conditions. The presentation also made clear that the electricity market would be increasingly linked to the heating and transport sectors. The Designnetz project aims to test some of the required infrastructure for the new energy system, including flexible biogas plants, storage solutions and load management. To ensure control of the many decentralized plants, the project region has been subdivided into local energy zones (nets), which are supposed to consume as much of the electricity produced on site as possible.

Nevertheless, the local energy zones are interconnected and can therefore also function as export or import regions for energy across the entire project region. The Rhine-Hunsrück district is an export region within the Designnetz network as it already produces three times more energy than it consumes. The presentation therefore showed both technical solutions for the energy transition and how a company from the “old energy world” was seeking to transition to the new world.

On Saturday the journalists visited a variety of renewable energy projects in the Rhine-Hunsrück district and saw first-hand how their economic benefits on the local area and economy. The morning started off with a brief introduction to the energy policy of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate by Dr. Thomas Griese, the State Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment, Energy, Nutrition and Forestry Rhineland-Palatinate.

The tour group then headed off to see the joint district heating supply of the municipalities Neuerkirch and Külz, which was based on a network featuring a wood-chip combined heat and power plant and a solar thermal system. The solar thermal system provides energy particularly in the summer months, and therefore significantly reduces the consumption of wood chips. The district heating supply not only saves 1,200 tons of CO2 equivalents per year. The municipality also saves the approximately €240,000, which is previously spent on fossil fuels, and instead channels its money towards buying a resource – wood chips – that is widely available within the community.

Volker Wichter, the mayor of the municipality of Neuerkirch explained the challenges of developing new heating grids and described the need to spend time and effort communicating with citizens about the benefits of change. For example, the municipality had also emphasized that carrying out the work to set up the heating network would also provide the opportunity to lay the fiber-optics network required for high speed internet access.  

The second stop on the program highlighted the importance of educational work on waste prevention. The journalists saw how the municipal waste management company had set up an educational center for children, which provides creative ways to raise awareness about how our "throw-away society" is having a negative impact on the environment. The group saw how a “garbage cemetery” and  insects were used to aid learning about the circular flow of biomass. The center was funded by revenues from a solar power plant built on a landfill site and the sale of woodchips from shredded and excess wood.

The company has built its headquarters as a passive house, making it a role model for the region. Furthermore, the group saw how the company had installed a battery storage facility as part of the Designetz project presented the previous evening. On the way to their next point of call, the group stopped at a school building where the wood from the disposal company was used in a combined heat and power plant. All in all, the morning showed clearly how the Rhein-Hunsrück district had created circular flows of resources to achieve the combined goals of environmental protection, climate protection and creating local added value.

In the afternoon, Tony Christ, former mayor of Mastershausen, explained to participants how the leasing municipal land to operators of wind turbines had created value added in his municipality. He explained that converting the rural landscape to a region of “the new energy world” had not been without resistance in Mastershausen, and that his experience had showed that change in rural areas would only be successful with extensive public participation and a proactive approach on the part of the municipal authorities. He said the success of their communication and participatory strategy was visible due to the widespread installation of solar panels on private rooftops.

Elaborating further on the benefits, he told the group that the municipality had used the revenue from renewable projects to fund social projects. It had built a fiber optic network for broadband internet access and set up a housing project for the elderly, as well as renovating historic buildings, such as a castle ruin. In this way, he said the municipality had ensured that Mastershausen remained an attractive place to live and an interesting place for tourists to visit.

The connection between energy transition and tourism was also clear at the final stop of the day in Mörsdorf, where the Geierlay rope bridge has become a tourism magnet in the region. The idea was initially conceived by three local residents, who were initially ridiculed as the “bridge dreamers” and not taken seriously. However, working with the local council, they pursued the idea and with the revenues generated from the local wind turbines, they were able to collect the required funds and subsidies for the project. The bridge was completed in 2015 and has so far attracted around 570,000 people to walk across it. This new tourist attraction has led new restaurants to open up in the village. The participants therefore concluded the day’s visits by enjoying the sunset views from the bridge.

Energy transition and public participation

Much like the Rhine-Hunsrück district , Wolfhagen’s location in the German low mountain range offer good wind conditions. Wolfhagen represents therefore another region of “the new energy world”. Wolfhagen also profits from the ​​value creation through renewable energies. But unlike in the Rhine-Hunsrück district, there is an additional focus on the financial participation of local people through an energy cooperative.

However, unlike many of the approximately 900 energy cooperatives in Germany, the Bürgergenergiegenossenschaft Wolfhagen (English: civil cooperative for energy of Wolfhagen) has directly invested in the local energy supplier, the Stadtwerke Wolfhagen (English: municipal services of Wolfhagen). The Stadtwerke were able to increase their potential investment capital by selling shares to the cooperative and used this additional income to build its own local wind turbines. But the cooperative is not only investing into energy production; it has also set up a fund for to help households save energy.

The cooperation between the Stadtwerke and the cooperative has allowed for projects tackling future challenges. One example is a scheme that the Stadtwerke is piloting to offer a range of electricity rates to selected households. The price, that is being offered to these households , is calculated on the basis of the weather forecast and the resulting production by the solar panels and the wind turbines, plus the prices on the wholesale electricity market. The electricity rates are calculated and adjusted for a 48-hour period and communicated directly to the customers. Thanks to the intelligent household appliances provided, they can plan to increase their electricity demand at the times of day when electricity is cheapest. The scheme therefore creates incentives to match energy consumption and production. Iris Degenhardt-Meister, a representative of the cooperative, was also on hand to answer the journalists’ questions and report from her own experience of the pilot scheme. She noted one difficulty of the scheme so far was that even on days when the weather forecast was favorable for wind and solar energy production, the prices on the wholesale market did not fluctuate enough.