Sustainability is generally defined as “meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Our abundant fossil fuel resources have been an enormous energy reserve that we’ve been able to use to build and grow with, and yet we have to recognize the finite nature of those fuels. Debates may rage over how much coal, oil and natural gas remain to be tapped, but there’s no question that sooner or later we’ll run out if we don’t do something differently. It’s also important to recognize that it gets much more expensive and destructive to extract these fuels as their availability declines. This is why we need to transition to renewable energy sources.
A small farm community near Berlin, Germany has made the transition. The 145 residents of Feldheim enjoy a mix of wind, solar and biofuels – all generated locally – to provide both heat and electricity. Energiequelle, a company co-founded by one of the town’s residents, installed a total of 43 wind turbines in fertile fields south of the town. These 275 feet tall turbines provide about 170 million kilowatt hours annually, most of which is sold to the grid. To supplement and diversify their energy sourcing, a 2.25 megawatt solar farm was built on 100 acres of land, generating 3.4 million kWh of electricity each year. The solar arrays are mounted on motorized tracking devices that are manufactured at a factory (EQ-SYS) in Feldheim.
A biogas plant was constructed by a local farmers’ cooperative, using manure and crop residues as input. The plant produces over 10,000 tons of fertilizer annually, as well as 4 million kWh of electricity. In addition, the heat generated in the plant is captured and distributed to most of the homes and businesses in the community using a network of underground pipes, which is used to provide heat and hot water throughout the year. During extremely cold winters, a wood chip power plant is used to supplement the biogas, saving about a thousand barrels of fuel oil each winter.
This is just smart. So much renewable energy from solar and wind is untapped in this country. It’s been estimated that three states – Texas, Kansas and North Dakota – have enough wind energy to power the entire country’s demand for electricity. Our solar resource here in the Midwest is 50% greater than what they have in Germany. We have massive pits of waste manure from feedlots that could be harnessed as energy and natural fertilizer. And we waste so much heat in our manufacturing and other processes that could be reused productively.
As the era of cheap energy begins to close, we’ll build residential and commercial structures to be more energy efficient, because it’s now more cost-effective to do so. With electricity prices expected to rise an average of 6-9% annually over the next 25 years, it makes sense to invest in buildings and equipment that will minimize energy use. You can also lock in a portion of your electricity demand at a fixed price by investing in your own solar equipment.
The community of Feldheim worked together to achieve complete energy independence. They formed a coop, which included residents, businesses and local government, to construct their own electric grid and power plants. This enabled them to become completely independent from the giant utility, and take control of their own energy costs. Each of the coop members are assured that the price of energy will not rise for 20 years, and is expected to actually decrease once the debts are repaid. They are already paying 15% less than what the utility charges, which is expected to increase, of course.
Is this success story replicable? It may work for a farming community, where people live modest lifestyles and work together, but what about our major cities? I don’t want to say “Anything they can do we can do better.” But I’d sure like us to try!