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Global Economy

The energy pioneers from the Middle Rhine

If you are traveling in the Rhein-Hunsrück district in Rhineland-Palatinate, you will come across an advertising banner again and again. A biogas producer advertises itself with the slogan "Biogas instead of Putin gas". "We've come a long way there, even if we can't completely do without natural gas for our energy needs," says Michael Uhle. He is the district's climate protection manager. 991 square kilometers, about 100,000 inhabitants, mainly small villages and little industry. Uhle is working on advancing the expansion of renewable energies. The district has already come a long way: the region has been named Energy Municipality of the Decade. "We can generate more than three times the amount of electricity required for the district ourselves – through wind power, photovoltaics and biomass," says Uhle. The renewable energy systems in the district feed the excess electricity into the grid for larger cities such as Trier or Mainz.

Biomass from garden waste

It all began in 1995. That was when the first wind turbine was set up in the district. At first there was criticism and doubt; today there are 279 plants. Photovoltaics have also been massively expanded. Since hydropower makes little sense in the region, the district is increasingly relying on biomass. "Residents can bring their garden waste, such as shrubs or tree cuttings, to 130 collection points. We can use this biomass, for example, to heat 37 large municipal buildings such as schools or homes for the elderly," says Uhle.

The energy transition has also paid off financially for the district. For a long time, the region was considered structurally weak and indebted. According to the Rhineland-Palatinate district council, the municipalities now have few liabilities and even have reserves. "Ninety percent of the land for wind turbines is owned by the municipality. Our municipalities lease the land to municipal utilities and thus achieve a total of 7.8 million euros in lease income a year," explains Uhle. In the past, rural areas almost only supplied food for the metropolises, but now electricity can also be supplied, says Uhle. This is a huge economic opportunity for the future. Expert teams from 54 nations were already there to get their own impression on site.

Shared echo in the region

Despite the great interest, the energy model has also met with rejection, for example from the "Soonwald" citizens' initiative, which is very close by. More wind turbines are to be erected here in the future. Your spokesman Georg Kiltz waves his hand at the view of the Rhein-Hunsrück district and the many wind turbines there. "There's always a disco. The landscape has been sparged." The citizens' group, on the other hand, relies on photovoltaics and storage technology. Kiltz demands that forests must be specially protected for nature and climate protection and as recreational areas for people.

A few kilometers further on, the atmosphere is completely different. "We are impressed by the Rhein-Hunsrück district and have already consulted Mr. Uhle. The citizens were also quite open at a meeting," reports Sönke Krützfeld. He is the first deputy of Stadecken-Elsheim – a town near Mainz. New wind turbines will soon be built there. "We are taking a very positive approach – for more climate protection and a more independent energy supply."

Energy model of the future for the whole country?

In Munich, Mathias Mier sits in front of a table with long columns of numbers. He conducts research at the economic research institute ifo on electricity generation from renewable energies. Can the Rhein-Hunsrück district and its model be a role model for the whole of Germany? "In rural areas with a lot of space for photovoltaics and wind turbines and little industry, this can sometimes work well. But on a larger scale, even with industrial systems, it quickly becomes problematic," Mier sums up.

For example, wind and solar power are not available without restrictions because there is no sun at night. In addition, there are always windless weeks in the year. With storage and biomass as a balance, the amounts of energy would in principle be sufficient for an industrial nation like Germany. However, the existing areas would have to be used extremely intensively for biomass, photovoltaics and wind power plants. "The price of electricity would then increase substantially. I doubt whether society would accept all of that."

But how does Mier see the energy supply of the future for the whole country? He also sees great opportunities in renewables. "Wind power could do that with a share of around 50 percent. The rest is then divided between sun, water and, to a lesser extent, biomass and natural gas. Nuclear power from the European integrated grid will also play a small role. It's the mix that counts," so Mier. This is the only way that peak demand can be met at any time at a socially acceptable price.

"War against Ukraine has increased pressure"

Michael Uhle, on the other hand, continues to believe in an energy supply exclusively from renewable sources. In the district, he now wants to promote e-mobility in particular, as there are a lot of commuters. More battery storage systems should also be purchased and installed.

"After we managed to get electricity in the district, we are now faced with the turnaround in transport and heating," says the climate protection manager. "The war against Ukraine and Putin's gas policy have increased the pressure on us to finally push ahead with the energy transition – here in the region and also throughout Germany."

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