Magazine article Geographical

Power to the People: From Primary School Teacher to Renewable-Energy Revolutionary, Ursula Sladek Took the Power out of the Hands of the Energy Giants and Gave It to the People of Schonau in the Black Forest. Olivia Edward Tells Her Remarkable Story

Magazine article Geographical

Power to the People: From Primary School Teacher to Renewable-Energy Revolutionary, Ursula Sladek Took the Power out of the Hands of the Energy Giants and Gave It to the People of Schonau in the Black Forest. Olivia Edward Tells Her Remarkable Story

Article excerpt

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Since the nuclear disaster in Japan, the staff at Ursula Sladek's renewable electricity company have been busier than ever before. 'We're receiving so many enquiries,' she says. 'My staff would have to work 24 hours a day in order to answer them all.'

She's sympathetic but she can't quite understand why it has taken people so long to doubt the safety of nuclear power. Like many others, she became concerned about atomic energy after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. While the fire crews were battling to contain the blaze at the plant, Sladek was living a quiet life about 2,000 kilometres away in the small Black Forest town of Schonau.

A primary school teacher by training, she had married a local GP and was raising their five children. 'I have to confess, we weren't very green,' says Sladek. 'Life was very busy and there were always so many questions to be answered. We just sort of got through the day. I didn't have time to think about anything else.'

That changed when the cloud of radioactive dust drifted over Schonau. 'We had to stay indoors,' says Sladek. 'We couldn't let the children play in the sandpit or eat certain foods. The radiation levels were really very high.' The situation stabilised after a few weeks, and 'life normalised after a few months--you didn't think about the dangers all the time'. But, she admits, her world had been shaken.

To harness their anxieties, Ursula and her husband formed Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. At first, their ambitions were modest. They hoped to encourage local people to reduce their energy consumption and to convince their energy supplier, KWR--which was providing nuclear-generated electricity at the time--to become greener.

But when KWR's contract came up for renewal and it refused to add some green clauses to its contract to supply energy, Sladek was shocked. 'They were so arrogant,' she says, a hint of incredulity still lingering in her tone. It was at that point she realised that she needed to set up her own energy company, 'a citizens company, where ecological considerations came first'. But, time was against her.

KWR's contract wasn't up for renewal for another four years but it had just offered the local government 100,000 Deutsche marks to secure its position for the future. Sladek knew that if there was any chance of her renewable-energy company becoming a reality, she needed to match this payment. Her team would then have four years to build up a credible rival company.

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They scraped together the initial payment and then began trying to raise the funds required to buy the licence to operate the power grid from KWR. Estimating the value of the grid at DM4million, they set themselves up as a co-operative and sold shares to people in the town and elsewhere in Germany. 'People thought it was a wonderful project,' says Sladek. 'They wanted to be part of it.'

After winning two local referendums on who should supply the town's electricity, Sladek looked set to take over the grid, but then KWR raised the sale price to DM8.7million. It looked as though the project was finished. Sladek knew that the price was unfair, but she didn't want to take KWR to court and get entangled in a decade-long wrangle while the company continued to deal in nuclear-generated energy. 'That was my darkest hour,' she says. 'I thought that was the end of the story.'

Unable to sell further shares without overvaluing the company, Sladek put out an appeal for donations as a last resort. Incredibly, within six weeks, she had raised DM1million, and the money continued to flood in. 'I learnt so many wonderful things during that time,' she says. 'Now I believe anything is possible.'

She went back to KWR and negotiated the price down to DM5.8million, bought the grid, and on 1 July 1997, her company, EWS, began supplying energy to the people of Schonau. …

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