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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.

Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize


Ursula Sladek, a  2011 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, is the co-founder and president of EWS, one of Europe’s largest cooperatively owned green energy companies. Motivated by the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl in 1986, the schoolteacher and mother of five from the small town of Schönau (population 2,382) in Germany’s Black Forest region — along with her husband Michael and a group of concerned parents — unsuccessfully lobbied her regional power company to adopt conservation measures, to no avail. After over 10 years of citizen activism and two referendums, Sladek and her small-town energy rebels were able to take over the local grid and start a community-run power co-op.

With total sales reaching 67 million euro in 2009, EWS has long outgrown its local market. While Schönau boasts three times the national average in photovoltaics, 20 cogeneration units, two hydroelectric plants, and a windmill, EWS today provides power from over 1,800 solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and cogeneration facilities to 115,000 homes and businesses throughout Germany and Europe. With the Merkel government’s recent decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and a targeted switch to 100 percent renewables by 2050, the former rebels suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of a new energy era.

Sven Eberlein visited Schönau, where Sladek shared her town’s unlikely story, how it might be replicated by others, and her thoughts on German energy policy and the future of the green economy. 

Sven Eberlein:The story of EWS starts with Chernobyl. Had you ever thought about energy before or did it come as a complete shock? 

Ursula Sladek: Until Chernobyl neither my husband nor I had been politically or environmentally engaged at all. We were just ordinary people raising our children and pursuing our careers. In my case, of course, my career was raising children. You know, five little kids, that's quite a job, you don't need to do much else. [laughs]

Then Chernobyl happened, and it was just like a bomb had been dropped into our lives. My husband immediately realized the scale of it. Being a physician, he had obviously had more experience with radiation in its various applications than me. I remember thinking at first, "Oh my, those poor people over there," but I didn't think it would affect us.

Soon after, of course, it became clear how small the world is and how this was affecting us as well. All of a sudden we were wondering, "Should we let the kids play in the sandbox?" and, “What's okay for them to eat?" The federal government at the time said that perhaps it would be best to feed your children powdered milk instead of fresh milk. They said, "Don't eat salad, don't eat spinach." It was the same message you're hearing again right now from Japan.

My husband was a member of our church council at the time, and I said to him, "Michael, this is also the church's concern, because we're dealing with God's creation here, we can't just destroy it like that. The churches have to get involved in this, too." So we brought this to the church council, we wrote the bishop and got nice responses, but nothing happened.

Nothing happened on a federal level -- in fact, nothing really happened anywhere that would indicate a change in thinking. And that's when we realized, “Okay, we have to step up here, we the people have to bring about change on our own.”

SE:So how did you first organize? Was it among friends?

US: No, we got together with a group of people that didn't necessarily know each other before. One of them had put an ad in the paper a few weeks after Chernobyl that said if you're concerned about what's happening and feel like you need to do something about it, to please get in touch with him. So I did, and that's how a small group formed.

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