Liquefied Manure's Thomas Paine May Be German

Biomass-powered villages in Germany's heartland may offer a model for U.S. towns questing for energy self-sufficiency.
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A village in northern Germany called Jühnde has become famous in green-energy circles as one of the world's most successful "bio-villages." That means it heats the houses of some 75 percent of its citizens with both wood chips and methane gas produced from byproducts of local farms — fermented silage (sunflowers, maize, wheat and rye) or liquefied manure.

"Seventy-five percent" of Jühnde is, admittedly, only about 200 people. But that hasn't kept the village from an unexpected level of international fame.

Eckhard Fangmeier, the project manager in Jühnde, has traveled twice to upstate New York to explain the German initiative to Americans, most recently at the end of last month. A fact-finding mission from BioTown USA (formerly known as Reynolds, Ind.) flew to Germany in 2007, and the Midwesterners openly treat Jühnde as a role model.

Bio-villages are something of a fashion in the German countryside. Less well known are wood- and methane-warmed towns like Mauenheim, Renquishausen and Oberrosphe. In Börnsen, locals have built such a successful village heating system that the giant European energy provider for the region, E.on, is no longer welcome. The mayor, Walter Heisch, identifies with Majestix, the village elder from the Asterix comic books about ancient Gauls who liked to beat up Romans. He's a rebellious villager dedicated to breaking the monopolistic power of Big Energy. "We can be insufferable when we work together," he likes to say.

So why, with its tradition of independence — and a popular aversion to "foreign oil," made painful since 2001 — doesn't America have a similar smattering of self-sufficient bio-energy towns? Where are the patriots of American energy, the Tom Paines and Patrick Henrys of the heartland, looking to convert hog manure into heat?

Right now BioTown USA is the best-developed American experiment, and it's more ambitious than Börnsen or Jühnde. The state of Indiana itself has guided the project, and the goal is not just to heat the town with farm byproducts but to run local vehicles on biofuels. This effort hit a stumbling block in 2007 when the town's main ethanol producer, VeraSun — which was planning to build a local refinery — fell victim to an ethanol glut and a spike in the price of corn. VeraSun, like ethanol producers across the United States, went bankrupt.

"Energy prices in the U.S. are very competitive," said Brandon Seitz, who directs the state's Office of Energy Development, "and Indiana has some of the lowest rates, which makes certain renewable projects harder to make profitable ... I [also] think business structure is different between Germany and the U.S., and the cooperative model is more accepted in German economic circles than within the U.S."

Eckhard Fangmeier sees American technology for these towns lagging about 15 years behind German know-how, which is the reason he flies to Syracuse to sit in on panel discussions. "It's refreshingly new for Americans," he told me. "That one can create something communally [to benefit every individual] — that's something very new. But I think it's just a matter of time. Americans are very practical."

Perhaps. But German towns also have the benefit of federal support. An ambitious policy to phase out nuclear power plants by 2021 led to the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000, which jacked up "feed-in tariffs" — fixed prices for small-time energy producers who want to sell their power into the national grid. An amendment to the law in 2004 strengthened the policy requiring big energy companies like E.on to buy from small, renewable producers. These price-fixing measures have helped some German bio-village projects, including Jühnde, pay the bills.

BioTown USA would rather do without government subsidies. Ryan West, from the Indiana Department of Agriculture, doesn't want to see a model bio-energy village; he wants a viable, reproducible business model. "We could do BioTown with state and federal funds, but that's not our goal," he told a local Indiana paper in 2006. "This isn't about creating a showplace and walking away."

But it's worth mentioning that feed-in tariffs aren't the same as state and federal funds. Germany has created a viable business model, without throwing taxpayer euros at the problem.

The argument against feed-in tariffs for renewable energy is that price-fixing will muck up the market and raise energy prices for everyone. Germans are, in fact, used to paying a bit more for electricity and heat, but the extra costs are negligible — an average of €1.50 ($2.10) per household after the Renewable Energy Sources Act came into effect, as estimated by the World Future Council. Some big energy companies (like mine in Berlin) also offer "green blends" of electricity at a premium, to help cover costs without raising their basic rates. It works. Germans as a people still find plenty of things to moan about, but the price of energy isn't one of them.

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