How a German dairy town is milking renewable energy

Wildpoldsried, a dairy farming town two hours’ drive west of Munich, harnessed its wind, sun and biomass resources last year to produce three times more energy than the population of 2,600 consumed — generating extra revenues of €6m ($7.4m).

After his election in 1997 to the post of mayor, Arno Zengerle launched a community-powered sustainability scheme called the Wildpoldsried Innovative Leadership plan. WIR-2020, as it is known, was a blueprint to reinvent the town and local area based on renewable energy, ecological construction practices and protection of water resources.

WIR-2020 spurred a green revolution that has led to the privately funded construction of a small wind farm, development of a biomass boiler system that heats 42 local buildings, and installation of PV panels on 200 private homes and municipal facilities. In 2011, the town’s output was just over 21MWh, compared with its consumption of 6.4MWh.

Since the scheme began, the surplus electricity has coursed into the national grid, giving the town sufficient funds to pay for a new school, gymnasium and community hall, along with six other buildings.

“It goes back even before [I became mayor], to 1990, when the new Electricity Feed Law [EFL] came in: it suddenly made renewable energy much more interesting financially, even down to the level of run-of-river hydropower and biogas plants on farms,” says Zengerle. “The new law made renewable-energy production financial viable.”

Small-scale hydro — the town brought 60kW of idled river turbines back into service that year — and biogas were the beginning, but it was wind that really got Wildpoldsried’s green ambitions off the ground.

Through Renergi — a “club” founded by Zengerle with the mission of seeing how the EFL could best benefit Wildpoldsried — a company called EW Wind Energy Hutoi was set up, led by resident Wendelin Einsiedler, and, in 1999, two 1MW Enercon E-58 wind turbines were erected in the nearby hills.

The cost of the turbines was financed partly by equity, partly by debt and partly through a small grant from the state of Bavaria.

The first turbines were followed in 2001 by another two machines funded by 94 local residents who each invested €5,000-25,000. A fifth turbine went up in 2008, and a further two 3MW Enercon units are now being erected, which should boost annual production to 32.5MWh.

“Wendelin, who became known as the Bavarian ‘wind pope’, was a true pioneer in the late 1990s,” says Zengerle. “He started [the project] as a totally private investment from the village inhabitants. This is still how it works today. Only local investors, no big companies from outside.

“We are currently producing over 330% of the electricity we use here in Wildpoldsried, and the new turbines will add 10MWh to production. Because the two Enercons are bigger, they will almost double our wind-power output, and this means we will soon be producing 500% [of the town’s demand].”

Some 70% of the investors in the latest wind-power build-out, which will involve capital expenditure of €7.1m, are “first-timers” who are stumping up a combined €2.9m. “These two turbines will bring in 80% of the earnings of the 40 dairy cattle farms in Wildpoldsried,” notes Zengerle.

“The turbines [will] have paid back in ten years — and then it is profit. Because all the projects are funded by private investors, they get the money. But a lot of it comes back into the village — with the two new wind turbines, the money to build them was raised within 14 days. There is also tax, of course. It is good for everybody.”

The 1,350 cows that graze in Wildpoldsried also do their part in supporting the town. Not only do they produce milk that is made into award-winning cheeses but also truckloads of manure that contributes to keeping the town’s lights on and homes heated through the winter.

Four anaerobic digester plants fuelled by animal waste, plant silage and “a little” imported corn stover, churn out 3.2MWh a year.

At the same time, pellets sourced from waste wood from the 555 hectares of sustainably managed forests around the town feed a 400kW biomass boiler and two 250kW biogas block-heating stations — run by the Village Development Company out of the basement of the building that will soon be the new community centre.

More than 40 buildings — taking in the doctor’s surgery, town hall, a retirement home, fire station, church, kindergarten and about 80 private residences — are connected to Wildpoldsried’s biomass-driven district heating network.

Last year, this operation generated 2.4MWh of heat, saving 170,000 litres of oil and cutting annual CO2 emissions by almost 450 tonnes.

“The biomass alone would be enough to power the whole village,” points out Zengerle.

Germany’s Renewable Energy Source Act, the EEG, sparked a solar boom in Wildpoldsried in 2000. Almost 200 homes now sport rooftop PV panels, generating a peak of 4MW, while nine municipal buildings — including the primary school, recycling facility and recently opened sports centre — add another 400kW.

Electricity generated from the solar, wind and biomass is sold to regional power company AÜV under a fixed-price 20-year deal.

“We are quite a poor village: we don’t have any big industries or tax revenues,” says Zengerle. “Yet government-supported renewable-energy production has meant we don’t have debts. I have always tried to stay abreast of the support programmes that might help this village, and the EEG was one of those that I thought was a real chance for us.”

Beyond the energy indepen­dence afforded Wildpoldsried, a healthy chain of small and medium-sized contractors — solar panel installers, engineers and maintenance outfits — has sprung up along the high street.

Meanwhile, the runaway success of the sustainability project has attracted a great deal of attention, with more than 100 delegations from “all around the world — from France to Finland and further away, Brazil [and] China” visiting to take notes.

Nowhere has the town’s profile been higher than in Germany itself. But the town council is taking a measured approach to building homes for newcomers. Since starting WIR-2020, the population has grown by “only a few hundred”, notes Zengerle.

“We don’t want to grow too fast,” he emphasises. “If we don’t keep things level, then there will be problems, we feel, related to the need for very large investments in infrastructure, social programmes, schools and so on. We have an area of the town that we are developing but we are only selling the land to young families from Wildpoldsried who are looking to move into bigger homes.”

Keeping the existing population close to home is more the aim. Wildpoldsried is unusual in the rural district of Oberallgäu for having families with four and five children — and every reason to believe the young will grow up and stay in the town to raise families of their own.

“Young families love it here and they feel no need to look elsewhere — we have a good kindergarten and school, and we are building a new nursery — and the cost of living here is low, as are the taxes,” says Zengerle. “Everything they need — doctors, shops, recreation facilities, a fire station — is here. This is very unusual for a village the size of ours. ”

In 2004, a survey asked residents: “Are you happy with progress? Would you like to see more renewable-­energy installations added?”

Zengerle says: “92% of the village felt the plan was working very well, but 54% thought we should still add more renewable energy. So there is a discussion. After [the nuclear-power disaster at] Fukushima, however, that number was up to 90%.

“The villagers here, the groups that come here to see how [a town can be energy-independent], all see it can be done. It is being done.”

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