Electricity from next door

The home-grown energy transition
6 Min.

Text: Birgit Scheuch, 12.02.2021

Where did my organic apple grow? In our globalized economy with its less-than-transparent supply chains, more and more people are keen to know the provenance of their food. A sense of regional belonging, the image of farmers and the history behind their farms generate a sense of closeness; the ability to visit barns and stables inspires hope for mutual respect and honesty. The same qualities that people increasingly seek in their food also apply to electricity generation.

Sun, sheep and sound control

Christian Traxel’s PV farm is located in Meerane in Saxony, Germany, – on a soundproof wall right next to the freeway. The solar modules dissipate the noise from the traffic and thus help further minimize noise pollution. The orientation and pitch of the wall ensure a high electricity yield. The perfect location, says Traxel. In his opinion, PV systems belong not in fields, where they get in the way of food production, but in spaces that are completely unsuited to any other form of activity. “There are more than enough spaces like this – landfill sites, for example,” he says. “Fields are for growing potatoes and other crops.”

And then there are the sheep. To keep the PV modules from becoming overgrown with grass and bushes, the flora underneath has to be kept in check. There are special robots that can do this now, says Traxel. He estimates that probably around two thirds of PV farm operators use gasoline- or battery-powered grass cutters. “But for me, that goes against everything that a PV system is supposed to embody. Sheep, on the other hand, are the perfect solution. They don’t make any noise, they don’t smell and they’re good at climbing. The gradient here is around 30 degrees, so not much fun with a brushcutter – and I’m speaking from experience!”

Sheep are not only an extremely charming solution to this problem, but they also make sense at a more “technical” level. “They can nibble away in places that a lawn mower can’t easily reach.” This also transforms the PV farm into a wonderful natural habitat: “The modules offer shade and shelter. The only thing you have to worry about is someone coming every few months to do maintenance work. This is a home to rabbits, moles, some funny little lizards, spiders, ants and, every now and then, a marten.”

According to Christian Traxel, solar plants do not belong on fields, but on land that is unsuitable for other activities.

Wind and honey

Ulf Winkler, too, has been selling electricity through enyway right from the company’s earliest days. After studying electrical engineering, in 1997 he came up with the idea of building a wind turbine with the current co-owner of his company. “I was really excited by the concept of sustainability, so I wanted to see if it was really possible.” Since then, the two men have planned, built, expertly assessed and operated a number of wind turbine systems and sold the electricity they generate.

A few years ago, Winkler the wind turbine operator became Winkler the organic beekeeper and farmer, two pursuits that have long been in his family’s genes and continue to be sideline enterprises to this day. In the Berlin borough of Pankow, Germany, next to a vast warehouse belonging to a discounter store, stands his wind turbine. Only the one wind turbine, mind. Winkler is more than merely a pioneer in wind energy. By constructing small, regional wind energy systems, he also demonstrates the expedience of personal relationships in driving forward the energy transition.

Electricity made by two amiable conservationists, for fellow conservationists – it doesn’t get any better than that. But it’s not all plain sailing…

Hurdles along the path of revolution

Christian Traxel: “When electricity from any source can be fed into the utility grid but a proportion of the electricity that comes out of the socket at the other end will always be coal- or nuclear-generated, people simply don’t understand the point of buying green electricity. As a consumer with an electricity contract, having the ability to influence the fuel mix only at a nationwide level can seem rather abstract.”

Ulf Winkler: “So my model is aimed more at people who are concerned about who produces their electricity and how.”

And this mindset has to go even further, because giant wind farms and rows of pylons criss-crossing the country and transporting electricity from offshore wind farms inspire resistance – including, ultimately, to the energy transition itself, which only plays into the hands of all the big corporations who continue to make money through coal- and nuclear-generated electricity.

That’s why companys like enyway exists. Founded in 2017, enyway links wind and solar energy producers directly with their customers, and they’ve clearly struck a chord. General manager Andreas Rieckhoff: “The more people want to buy their electricity directly from the producer, the more the balance of power shifts from the big corporations to the people.”

Ulf Winkler: “I was really excited by the concept of sustainability, so I wanted to see if it was really possible.”

One, two … a thousand drops in the sea of electricity

What’s needed are people who really engage with the complexity underlying our electricity supply. Each and every one of them pioneers of the energy transition, among them people who have dedicated themselves to the cause of renewable energy for the past 25 years. And then you have external factors like the 20-year subsidization scheme under the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG).

“Our model becomes especially attractive once state support for a plant runs out,” says Franziska Straten, business developer for enyway. “We experienced this for the first time at the start of 2021 and managed to stop 11 plants from being dismantled because the operators switched to selling their electricity directly to customers and so were able to continue running their plant cost-effectively. This proves that peer-to-peer concepts like that will shape the future of renewable energies. Without concepts like these, the energy transition will not happen – after all, state subsidies will not run forever.”

Michael Seifert is the sort of person who’s always looking for ways to optimize his contracts, so it wasn’t long before he came across on his hunt for bargains. His electricity provider raised its prices, prompting Seifert to do some research into where he could buy electricity more cost-effectively. One discounter he found offered a €300 bonus for new customers, but to save money he would ultimately have had to change providers after a year. This “provider hopping” was too risky for him: “I would have forgotten to terminate the contract and so ended up paying more on top.” The whole thing is based on false assumptions anyway, because it’s usually one of the big players that lies behind these offers. When doing his research, he stumbled on the company from Hamburg – exactly the sort of enterprise he was looking for. The two people who provide the electricity, Rik and Jens, bought up a wind turbine shortly before the end of its subsidization period. “I liked the idea of continuing to operate a turbine that still works and is still capable of generating electricity,” says Michael Seifert. “Not to mention the fact that E.ON, RWE, Vattenfall and all the other big players don’t get to see a penny.”

Rethinking the electricity supply

“In order for us to sell electricity to our customers, everyone who sells our electricity has to be registered with the Federal Network Agency as a power supplier,” says Franziska Straten. So Ulf Winkler and Christian Traxel have entered into a supply contract with each of their customers. enyway acts as a service provider for people who buy and sell electricity and takes care of all the organizational aspects – concepts, bookkeeping, invoicing, marketing – and the technical infrastructure.

Franziska Straten: “You obviously need all the background software for regulating the electricity supply for each of our sellers. This allows us to see exactly how much electricity a plant is feeding into the grid and how much of this is consumed by ’its’ customers. This occurs in a 15-minute cycle.” This is the only way to ensure the one-to-one ratio – in other words, that only as much electricity can be sold from each plant as it actually supplies. When Christian Traxel’s PV modules are not supplying any electricity (at night, for example), his customers receive the “missing” electricity from producers whose plants are generating surplus energy – and if no one is currently generating surplus energy, the electricity is sourced from the green energy portfolio of a direct marketing partner.

This is a huge organizational, technical and legal challenge – but is it worth it?

Absolutely, says Franziska Straten. It’s financially attractive for the sellers because there’s no longer any intermediary that they have to pay a major share of their margin to. And it’s also environmentally friendly because we enable small-scale green electricity providers to (continue to) participate in the market, increasing the likelihood of a real energy transition.

The two people who provide the electricity, Rik and Jens, bought up a wind turbine shortly before the end of its subsidization period.

Acceptance needs a face

“The major problem of acceptance regarding the expansion of the transmission grids makes it all the more important that potential is leveraged at a local level,” says enyway general manager Andreas Rieckhoff.

Specifically, this means that when small-scale systems can continue to operate, fewer centralized, large-scale plants are needed. And when it comes to new projects, regional, small-scale systems usually find acceptance among the locals – especially when they know the people actually running them.

Beekeeper and wind turbine operator Ulf Winkler knows this from many years of experience. At each site, he and his partner build one wind turbine – or two at most. They seek out the sites themselves and also plan and operate the wind turbines. “So we’re always talking to people and building relationships. We never hide who we are, and we help with contacts or support the local sports club or kindergarten. That way it’s always fun. You can never get absolutely everyone on board. If we sense that we’re not welcome, we just go somewhere else.”

The alternative, says Winkler, is commissioning others to do all their project development work. But this could mean that projects take a lot longer – or simply come to nought. Most projects fail, he says, at the approval stage when they meet with resistance from a variety of pressure groups.

See that wind turbine? It’s mine!

Anyone who wants to become an official provider of “regional electricity” has to provide some sort of regional certification. Due to the huge amount of red tape involved, enyway made a conscious decision to forego this label. Franziska Straten is confident that this was the right move: “It’s much more effective and authentic when the customer knows who’s actually generating their electricity.”

Since enyway establishes a direct relationship between the producer and customer, electricity – a product that lends itself to sharing – takes on a personal touch and the energy transition feels like it’s within reach. Ulf Winkler: “The conventional process whereby electricity is marketed to a distributor is completely anonymous. The electricity is fed into the utility grid; the consumer could be anyone. enyway makes it possible for us to supply electricity directly to our end customers. I think every wind turbine operator dreams of being able to say ’See that wind turbine? It’s mine!’ That’s where the electricity flowing into your home actually comes from. It’s great being in direct contact with our customers.”

The majority of Christian Traxel’s customers live locally, but the Saxony-based electricity provider also has customers as far afield as Flensburg. enyway’s customers don’t always simply choose their nearest provider. Traxel explains why: “Customers award what you might call ’sympathy points’ – and regionality is absolutely one of the most important aspects. Others might be more interested in sheep grazing, while others might simply love the idea of solar power.”

Some of Ulf Winkler’s customers have even dropped by personally to see him. “We’ve given a few of our customers a little tour of the site, although it has to be said that more people came for the honey.” Some of his customers live closer to the wind turbine than he does: “Where I live, I’d have to climb up onto the roof of the shopping center to see it. It also happens that someone who has my mobile number calls me to ask why the turbine isn’t running. It’s always really nice when someone can pick up the phone and ask me what’s wrong and I can tell them that there’s just some maintenance work going on.”

A couple of demands for the revolution

“It´s just a revolution.” That’s enyway’s slogan. But what would it take to accelerate this revolution?

For Christian Traxel, one sticking point concerns the grid utilization charges. When he sells his electricity, he has to use the transmission grid. Regardless of whether he uses 500 meters or 100 kilometers of the utility grid, he has to pay the same charge to the grid operator. “That’s around nine cents per kilowatt hour, twice as much as we get for our electricity.”

The current system is hardly conducive to the kind of regional, direct transactions of the kind people engage in when buying from their local organic farmer. Traxel: “Imagine if the grid utilization charges in Germany were structured so that they are based on the distance that the electricity has to cover. Now imagine, for example, a housing development that comprises single-family homes and is located one kilometer away. If I had to pay maybe one cent in grid utilization charges, that would be OK.” Bypassing the grid completely and installing separate cables is something that so far only large commercial consumers can afford.

“At enyway, we sell our electricity locally but still rely on the utility grid. This means that grid utilization charges apply, which have to be paid by the consumer. This unfortunately means that it’s no cheaper than coal-generated electricity.”

Franziska Straten from enyway wants to see tangible regulatory improvements: “Simplified processes for mini-providers would make life much easier and help to advance the cause – in terms of both the initial registration and ongoing reports regarding EEG apportionment and the tax on electricity.”

And enyway general manager Andreas Rieckhoff is clear: “The revolution needs more people like our fellow comrades and customers, people who are not afraid of a challenge and simply get on with it.” We agree!