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How to Start Your Own Power Company, Stop Coal and Nukes, and Transform Your City

2011 Goldman Prize winner Ursula Sladek discusses how she became an unwitting energy mogul -- and a global environmental hero.

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The second half of the plan was to build a people-owned power company, so we could put in our own bid for the new license once the old one expired. We were still naive, because we went to the mayor's office thinking he'd be really happy about our great plan. And the mayor thought we had all gone crazy. How on earth are these citizens going to supply this town with energy? Running an energy company is complicated, you must surely have done this for a hundred years to be able to do this, right? However, at this point we had already garnered a lot of media interest, because, of course, it was a great story: Residents of a small community give their town 100,000 DM to not sign a contract!

Reluctantly the mayor agreed to let us conduct a feasibility study to show how we were going to do this, and we did. At this point we had already consulted with a lot of energy experts all over Germany. We conducted the study, learned a lot while doing it, and then proudly presented it to the mayor, who gave it to the local examiners office. And they said, “Dear mayor, you should accept your citizens' offer. What they've done here is great and you really can't lose. You get your 100,000 DM and choose between two providers.” 

However, they still didn't want to do it, and there was a town council decision against us. In Germany there's the possibility of having a referendum against a town council decision, and that's what we did.

SE: And that’s how the first referendum came about?

US: Exactly. That's when we learned a lot about political work and with it lost a little bit of our naiveté, even though we still approached a lot of other things very naively. Of course, you have to consider the risks in things, but if you always just play it safe right from the beginning, you're never going to get anywhere, because that's when your mother's voice appears in your head and says, "you can't do that. It's much too expensive. Be careful, it's too dangerous." So you have to pretend as if you have already overcome all obstacles and forget everything you've been taught.

SE: The campaign turned out to be a tough battle....

US: Well, the first referendum was still much more benign, also because KWR didn't really take us seriously. They thought, gee, these crazy people, nobody is going to vote for their nonsense, everyone can see that they're totally deluded. So they approached the whole thing rather casually, whereas in the run-up to the second referendum they knew what was at stake and that now it was do or die. So obviously they upped the ante quite a bit. The second referendum was really really tough. That was a time of my life I'd rather not relive, to be honest. The worst part about it were all the personal attacks, and what's really difficult is not to lash out in the same way.


SE:Winning the second referendum meant you were granted the license to operate the grid. But it came at a high price.

US: Yes, there was the issue about the cost of the grid. We had calculated it at 4 million DM, and that was actually quite generous, because we didn’t want it to look like we were trying to make a profit from this. We knew 4 million was the upper limit, and KWR demanded 8.7 million. It was clear that we wouldn't be able to do this through donations, and so they tried to kill our whole project that way. If you want to be an energy provider you have to have a permit from the department of finance, and you have to make your case to them that you can maintain uninterrupted service and do it cheaply. And cheaply in this case means it can't cost more than under the previous provider. If we'd had to pay 8.7 million DM there would have been no way for us to do this economically. We would have had to double the prices, so it was obvious that this was their leverage to prevent it all from happening.

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