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Energy democracy

Berlin citizen grid buyback fails

Yesterday, the German capital held a plebiscite to decide whether the city should bid for the contract to manage the local grid when it comes up for renewal. Although an overwhelming majority of those who voted supported the campaign (83 percent), voter turnout was low, so the campaign failed.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall for the campaign a few months ago when city officials opposing a citizen takeover of the grid managed to get the date of the plebiscite moved back from the day of national elections in September to November 3. Had Berliners been able to vote on the issue when they went to vote for German Parliament, voter turnout would have been much greater; it was around 73 percent in September.

This time, however, citizens had to take an extra trip back to the polls, and far fewer people chose to do so. The rules stipulate that the majority wins, but also that a quorum of 25 percent of all eligible voters has to be reached – and the "yes" votes only amounted to 24.1 percent. Essentially, the campaign one roughly 80 percent of the 30 percent who voted. (In comparison, Barack Obama won roughly 28.6 percent of eligible voters in 2012.)

The campaigners are focusing on how popular the measure was among those who bothered to vote – and indeed, it is unlikely that the measure would have failed if people had not been required to take an extra trip to the polls. They say their campaign that will continue and that city officials will have to get used to the continuation of an organized citizen campaign for energy democracy in the German capital.

For Vattenfall, the utility that currently runs Berlin's grid, a defeat in the plebiscite could have been a nail in the firm's coffin. Ironically, the utility (whose name means (waterfall) in Swedish) is owned by the Swedish government but operates as a private firm within Germany, where it has a much dirtier image than at home. For instance, it is a major excavator of brown coal, and its mining subsidiary is also exempt from the renewables surcharge – so essentially, German ratepayers subsidize Sweden's clean energy firm to dig carbon out of the ground in Germany.

The firm could see this exemption revoked soon if the new coalition restricts eligibility to firms that can actually move their activities abroad, a change that would put even greater pressure on Vattenfall’s struggling bottom line. Last week, the firm's CEO said he will not renew his contract after March 2015. While his firm is still in the red, sales are down by more than 10 percent this year – mainly, as he told the German press, "because of renewables." The loss of the grid in Berlin would have taken away a stable source of income; grid investments have a guaranteed return in Germany of around 7-9 percent.

The campaign in Berlin was only the latest in a long series of citizen buybacks of infrastructure originally privatized for 20 years after the Fall of the Wall. And as the BBC noted, "church groups and environmental campaigners" – a combination of conservatives and conservationists typical of the German energy transition movement – were behind the recent successful takeover of the grid in Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city. (Craig Morris)