A place with a lot of energy

Bioenergy villages go their own way. Ascha in Bavaria shows how well this can work when everyone joins in.
by Johannes Göbel

There’s no getting away from green power in Ascha near the Bavarian Forest. Every driver approaching the village in a northerly direction notices this immediately. Just before you reach the village itself, between maize and wheat fields, you see a special crop being harvested: rows and rows of solar trackers covering an area of ​​about three and a half hectares. The 285 imposing devices are all pointing towards the sun like futuristic plants; they can generate up to 876 kilowatts of electricity. That’s about 70% of the installed solar-power capacity in Ascha. This solar field is “farmed” by Franz Berl, who stops by regularly with his tractor. But Berl isn’t a farmer, he’s an industrial electrician who works at a nearby roofing-tile factory. The fact that he also operates the solar farm on his own – and was the sole investor, financing it with a total of 4.2 million euros – is just one of the unusual things about the Ascha “bioenergy village”.

Ascha, with its approx. 1,500 residents, is one of Germany’s 72 bioenergy villages. Thanks to the dedication of their inhabitants, these communities manage to advance and improve their energy supply independently of large corporations: self-managed power grids and heating networks help keep energy prices stable; community-owned power plants create jobs. The number of ­supporters of bioenergy villages has risen sharply over the last five years. They also include Ilse Aigner, Germany’s Federal Agriculture Minister. She emphasizes the opportunities of the idea: “It promotes local development, boosts regional economic activity – and an entire community identifies with this project.” Some communities are actually feeding energy into the power grid, because they generate more electricity than they need: in Ascha’s case nearly a fifth of their “home-grown” power from renewable sources. In addition to Franz Berl’s solar park, this surplus comes from numerous other private and public photovoltaic installations, plus a biogas plant that generates electricity from maize and grass. “My family has lived in Ascha for several generations,” says Franz Berl. “Of course, I’m delighted to be part of the bioenergy village with a kind of showcase project of my own.” Berl had been ­musing on the benefits of renewable energy long before his photovoltaic park came on stream in 2008. “I was concerned that we can no longer continue with finite resources like coal and oil, nor with nuclear power. We have plenty of sunshine in our region, and since 2004 the Federal Government has been offering attractive incentives promoting solar energy based on the Renewable ­Energy Act (EEG),” he recalls. “Important supporters included my bank, which gave me a loan, and Mayor Zirngibl, who ­promoted the project extensively in the community.”

Wolfgang Zirngibl looks like a contented man. He leans on the bridge railing in front of Ascha’s late-baroque parish church, looking relaxed. Right next to the church is the parish hall where the mayor speaks on how Ascha became a bioenergy village. Zirngibl has been mayor of the municipality since 1990 and since then has generated a lot of enthusiasm for several energy projects among Ascha’s residents. “It all began with the idea of doing ​​something for our home village and for nature. As a result, we soon came up with the issue of energy.” The first major project was a biomass plant, which was built in 1995. It uses waste wood from local woods and today supplies heating to 75 private buildings, plus the industrial area, the kindergarten, the elementary school, the church, the community centre and the rifle club. Another alternative ­energy source was built in 2001: a biogas plant. A civic solar system followed in 2004: the municipality made the roof of the multi-purpose hall available to everyone who wanted to operate a small photovoltaic system there. A dozen Ascha residents have since built their own plants and thus feed a total of 37.95 kilowatts into the local power network at peak times. More and more homeowners have since installed solar systems on their roofs as a result of this success and following numerous information meetings. Talking about his active public relations work, Wolfgang Zirngibl says: “You have to take the people along with you.” He hopes that Ascha will one day be able to generate all the energy it needs itself and is also thinking about the untapped possibilities of wind power and electromobility. “Perhaps we can one day financially support citizens who want to use electric vehicles.”

Ascha’s elementary school also cares about the future. The school has won the “Environmental School in Europe” award several times. The children learn, for example, to turn down the heating when the windows are open and not to leave electrical appliances on standby unnecessarily. “We integrate environmental and ­energy issues into lessons,” says headteacher Petra Wutz. The ­environment is evidently also an important theme for the children when they are at home: “We collect water in a rain barrel,” says 8-year-old Thomas proudly. And what else do they achieve with their environmental and energy awareness? “We save money,” says Thomas’s classmate Pia, smiling shyly.

Maria Kulzer has made a good investment: a few years ago she completely renovated her house, making it highly energy-efficient. You can hardly believe it’s over 30 years old: modern wooden walls, colourful plaster – all bright and friendly – also thanks to large, expensive aluminium glass windows. “You might say they’re the Mercedes among windows,” she remarks with a grin. It’s worth it to her to save energy: the windows are efficient heat insulators. For eleven years Maria Kulzer has been active in Ascha as a volunteer Energy Project Manager. She advises home owners and puts them in touch with experts. She has already ­infected many Ascha residents with her commitment. “If you set an example in a credible way, the people will come along too.”

Maria Kulzer didn’t need to convince her brother, though. ­Andreas Kulzer works as a landscape architect for a nationwide planning office. He advises communities on implementing Agenda 21 projects initiated by the Rio de Janeiro Environmental Con­ference. And then there’s his other workplace: the Ascha biomass heating station he has been running as managing director for the last three years. Kulzer co-founded the Ascha district-heating company that has been operating the biomass heating station since 1995. He stands next to the large boiler and tells us what drives him: “Here you really can think global and act local!” he says. Ascha also shows how the energy of the future might look like with its new development area, which is to be connected up to the district heating system. Another biogas plant that turns wood pellets into electricity is also to be built. Andreas Kulzer wants the story of the Ascha bioenergy village to continue: “We can make a difference with our community. We should seize the opportunity.”

by Johannes Göbel