⚡Powering the city: energy transition in Berlin

Berlin winter hacks. Sometimes it’s Vitamin D, sauna and clubbing. This year at least, it’s fairy lights. So far I have strung them across the ceiling, adorned the houseplants and looped them around the handrail of the balcony. Even now that Christmas and New Year’s are over they won’t be coming down, because being able to turn those twinkling little lights on as it starts to get dark at 4pm just fills me much needed Fröhlichkeit.

I am fortunate to be able to take this completely for granted because of a seemingly abundant (if increasingly more expensive) energy supply. But where does this energy actually come from? Over the last months I’ve been researching into the topic of energy transition and energy humanities to try and answer this question. In the book Petrocultures: Oil, Politics and Culture, the authors talk about how, over the last centuries, fossil fuels have become so naturalised in our lives that one of the biggest tasks of moving into more sustainable ways of being will be to “make visible” what has become “socially invisible”, namely how fossil fuels are intertwined with the fabric our lives. Changing this narrative, they say, will be a social transformation without historical precedent, “especially given the scope (the earth’s population may reach 9.6 billion people by midcentury) and scale (affecting the infrastructure of the entire planet) involved.” Considering how electricity is laced throughout every aspect of our lives, nothing is going to be more urgent, all-encompassing and transformative in the next decades than the global Energiewende (energy transition).

When Europe first became ‘electrified’ back in the 19th century, this was made possible by many decentralised actors producing their own energy supply using mostly coal. Eventually, this supply became centralised via a central distribution plant, and this remains the story until this day. This is probably why despite the huge amount of momentum around the climate movement, energy transition still somehow feels like somebody else’s responsibility. I can try to limit my individual participation in global food supply chains (also heavily reliant on fossil fuels) by buying local produce, growing my own food or participating in a community garden, but how do I ‘localise’ my energy supply and participate in the energy transition? This is the question I wanted to explore with this newsletter.

When I started researching this topic I was surprised to learn that the city of Berlin officially bought back its own power grid in 2021, as part of the city’s goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Renationalisation remains a controversial topic in the UK because of the supposed negative impact on the economy. In a statement former Finance Senator Matthias Kollatz (SPD) said renationalising this “central communal infrastructure” was aimed at preparing the city for energy transition.

Last month, the new cabinet in Germany announced promises to end the use of coal “ideally” by 2030, and facilitate a massive expansion of renewable energies to bring Germany onto a 1.5°C path. According to data from Clean Energy Wire, in the first half of 2021 the energy mix in Germany was made up of 41.4% renewables, and this figure reflects the fact that across Europe, renewable energy projects such as solar parks and off-shore wind farms are being ramped up in the drive towards carbon-neutral. Across the world, renewable energy has actually proven to be cheaper and easier to produce than previously expected.

All of this sounds great, but that doesn’t mean that these benefits are reaching us, the consumers. In fact power prices in Germany are amongst the highest in Europe and have gone up in the past 10 years, despite a huge increase of ‘cheaper’ renewable energy coming into the grid. This is partly due to consumers bearing the cost of energy transition, and the fact that the investments, policies, and infrastructure of the energy industry as a whole are very much skewed in favour of fossil fuels and the profit they create.

When the Labour Party proposed to renationalise the UK energy grid in 2019, the idea was met with resistance from for-profit energy companies who said that it would delay energy transition and make energy more expensive for consumers. Today, rising gas and power prices means that energy companies are warning that a “national crisis” could hit the UK in 2022, unless the Government intervenes now. All of this goes to show that energy transition does not necessarily benefit the everyday citizens who are dependent on this infrastructure. Last year, EU Labor Commissioner Nicolas Schmit warned of a rise in energy poverty in Europe due to rising energy prices. In Germany, higher energy prices means that cost of living is the highest it’s been in 28 years.

83% of households in the EU have the potential of becoming an ‘energy citizen’ and contribute to renewable energy production

“I think by 2050 we will have our carbon neutral society, the question is who will benefit the most from this transition, and who will own the infrastructure,” says Daan Creupelandt from REScoop EU, the European federation of citizen energy cooperatives, over the phone from Brussels. The mission of REScoop EU is to “achieve energy democracy” by empowering citizens and groups of citizens (energy cooperatives or energy communities) to participate in, and benefit from, the energy transition. He shares one example of a local football club in Großbardorf, a town in Bavaria. The club were moving into a higher league, and as a result were required to put a rooftop over their stands. In order to pay for the new roof, supporters set up an energy cooperative. They paid for the roof using the money they raised from selling shares in the cooperative, and installed solar panels. In return, the fans receive a season ticket or a free Bratwurst at each game. “For me this is a typical example that the energy itself is only a small part of the solution”, says Daan. “It’s not just about energy. It’s also about connecting to your neighbours again, creating community, putting an end to this individualistic approach.”

Energy is so closely correlated with standards of living that many have argued it should be considered a human right. Forming energy communities can help to mitigate energy poverty by allowing citizens to produce and exchange locally produced power with one another (peer-to-peer), or sell it back to the grid. According to a 2016 study, a huge 83% of households in the EU have the potential of becoming an ‘energy citizen’ and contribute to renewable energy production, demand, response and/or energy storage by 2050. Additional European Commission estimates suggest that by 2030, citizen-led energy communities could ‘own’ some 17% of wind power and 21% of solar that is produced.

“If we want to actually meaningfully change the system we have to show people and politicians that we can put in place these economically viable business models that do not just want to maximise profits for the sake of the shareholders,” explains Daan. Energy transition will therefore involve not only a change in the kinds of energy we use, but also a transition in the values and practices that have been shaped around our use of the vast amounts of energy provided by fossil fuels.

“It’s not really a transition.”

Sebastian (not his real name), an electrical engineer who works on building large-scale solar or photovoltaic (PV) parks in Germany, agrees that energy transition should be about more than transitioning to a very centralised supply of renewable energy where profit is maximised for the benefit of a few shareholders. “I have two different perspectives on this,” he says to me on the phone. “On one hand, we need to build these large-scale PV parks and wind turbines because we need to scale these renewable energy solutions very quickly to combat climate change, but on the other hand I don’t believe that this is a sustainable long term solution.” He explains that the building of large-scale solar and wind farms to supply the national grid with renewable energy actually creates a lot of industrial waste (something that Michael Moore also criticises in his 2020 documentary Planet of the Humans). “The PV parks that we’re building right now are all operated by big companies, and what they’re doing is feeding all that energy into the national grid… basically what we’re doing there is just repeating the energy system that we have right now, it’s not really a transition.”

In Sebastian’s opinion, smaller scale, local production with an intelligent infrastructure to enable peer-to-peer renewable energy exchange would be a lot more sustainable in the longer term. This model has already been successful in Brooklyn, New York City, where local energy marketplaces have been created to create locally generated, renewable energy. Like in Berlin, the New York City power grid is state-owned and the City has some of the most ambitious climate legislation in the country. In Brooklyn, a blockchain-based community ‘microgrid’ allows people to buy and sell renewable energy to their neighbours without going through a central company. As well as reducing energy bills for everyone in the community, this also ensures a more stable supply in the case of natural disasters.

“The technology [for this type of project] exists, it just needs a favourable legislative environment and the support for people to take it up,” says Ana Trbovich, a policy advisor and co-founder of two technology ventures looking at the applications of blockchain in the energy sector. In New York City, recognition of the ageing energy infrastructure led regulators to implement energy policy frameworks and incentives for microgrids. In 2019, the EU overhauled its energy policy framework to move towards cleaner energy and deliver on the EU’s Paris Agreement commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This new energy rulebook — called the Clean energy for all Europeans package — made specific reference to energy communities. As part of this package, member states were required to identify potential obstacles in their policy and legislation to the formation of energy communities.

Despite this, Germany currently has some of the most obstructive frameworks for energy communities in the entire EU, according to research carried out by REScoop EU. In Berlin, the new coalition agreement between the the SPD, Grüne and die Linke makes specific reference to the BürgerEnergie Berlin cooperative; “The coalition is striving for more opportunities for citizens to participate in the power grid through BürgerEnergie Berlin, in order to give Berliners the opportunity to help shape the energy transition and contribute to a new kind of public company.” As it stands, joining this cooperative seems to be the best way to get involved in energy transition in Berlin, but this doesn’t mean that you’ll be charging your phone using solar energy from your rooftop anytime soon — in fact, after several months of research into this topic, the route to doing that still seems very unclear. “We need to create an energy system where a lot of people, who are mostly not experts, can understand how to get involved,” explains Christoph Rinke, one of the founders of BürgerEnergie Berlin, to me over the phone. “It’s not always a technical and political question, it’s also a cultural and social question.”

I could join an energy cooperative, but perhaps I don’t know or like my neighbours enough to organise with them, or perhaps I’m moving around every six months because finding an affordable apartment with Anmeldung in Berlin is too difficult. What are my options? Blockchain energy startup Grid Singularity aims to give people the maximum freedom to design their own virtual energy communities. They’ve created a free simulation tool where users can create their own future energy scenario. This bottom-up market design allows households to connect with energy assets (like solar panels or wind turbines), whilst giving more flexibility about who is connected i.e you can choose who will join your energy network. The tool is not that easy to use for a beginner, but it gives an intriguing glimpse into one possible future for household energy consumption.

Grid Singularity have also co-founded the Energy Web Foundation to create the Energy Web stack and partner with energy providers to implement blockchain technology in new energy markets. They have created a native cryptocurrency, the Energy Web Token, to help the energy sector to develop blockchain applications and build a more “traceable, democratised, and decarbonised energy system”. In the interview I did with her last year, co-founder Ana Trbovich explained that blockchain appeals to her because it questions the concept of sovereignty. Using blockchain as an underlying mechanism, she says, people are “able to exercise rights over their own data…[and] use that data for their own benefit — or the benefit of their community — rather than being stripped of that right and plugged into a very centralised and one-sided arrangement.”

In a paper published in 2021, researchers identified that one of reasons behind the failure to bend the global emissions curve is an inability to see the future as a simple extension of today. It’s not really an energy transition if the same model is replicated. “We don’t just want the energy transition to succeed at all costs,” says Daan from ReScoop. “We want to make sure that it’s also fair and affordable for all, if we don’t manage to bring along all citizens from all different social groups then this is not going to work.” In her paper on Urban Regenerative Thinking, Kimberly Camrass writes that a transformative shift towards regenerative sustainability requires not only a change in thinking and practice, but also in the world views and values underpinning our systems, in order to create both environmental and social benefit. According to Ana Trbovich, transitioning to a more decentralised model in which benefit is shared more equally is “very disruptive” and “likely to be implemented in stages when the regulators become comfortable with this new concept”. The fact that last year’s COP26 conference included more delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country, and the fact that there is still no global agreement about the phasing out of coal, shows that this transition is still very much in motion. The key, says Daan, is to “lead the transition by example”, not just by turning off the fairy lights and waiting for the energy transition to happen, but actively searching for ways to participate.

Resources:

📖 A practical guide for energy communities from ReScoop EU.

💻 You are energy: the ultimate guide to becoming a prosumer from Grid Singularity.

📹 We the Power: The future of energy is community-owned from Patagonia.

✍️ My interview with Ana Trbovich on Emerge.

Lastly, the artwork for this piece is by Alex Rommel for Utopia 2048.

Originally published on Regenerative Futures Berlin.

Read a German translation of this article here.

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