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The latest article in our new economics series looks at what happened when a German utilities contract expired, and one man thought his neighbours could take over
• Listen to Aditya Chakrabortty talking about game-changing economic models on The Alternatives podcast
Martin Rühl never imagined this fight would define the rest of his life. Not for a moment did he reckon it would become so epic in length, in scale, in consequences. He just thought his speck of a town should run its own electricity supply.
A modest proposal, but in the Germany of 2003 it was highly unusual. Gerhard Schröder was still chancellor and, although a social democrat, was pushing through more privatisations of public assets than any other leader in German history. This was in a Europe that had learned from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to stop worrying and start loving the private sector. Now here, swimming against history’s current, was one orderly, slightly anxious engineer.
German politicians don’t privatise because they believe it will lead to better services. They mainly want the euros
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Aditya Chakrabortty speaks to Iris Degenhardt-Meister, who is part of a cooperative energy company that runs the electricity grid in Wolfhagen, Germany, and asks Prof Andrew Cumbers from the University of Glasgow if such a model could work in Britain
In Britain, rip-off energy prices have become politically toxic, with the major parties vying to offer price caps, heating allowances and a transition to lower-carbon technologies. But truly radical plans – such as taking the supply of energy back into the hands of local communities – have never been given serious consideration. It is a model that has been trialled in the German town of Wolfhagen and is now a source of local pride. Aditya Chakrabortty hears from Iris Degenhardt-Meister, who sits on the board of the local energy cooperative, which not only replaced a major multinational in running the town’s energy supply but is now aiming to make it 100% renewable.