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In Germany, ruddy-cheeked farmers achieve (green) energy independence

Freiamt residents produce 17 percent more electricity than they use, boosting their bottom line and proving that green isn’t just for geeky idealists.

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Since investors first approached farmers in Freiamt about installing windmills in the 1990s, the humble village has become a green-energy hub. Today, it produces 17 percent more power than it needs.

Mariah Blake

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Dawn was just breaking over the Black Forest when Helga Schneider climbed out of bed, tugged on her overalls and thick brown galoshes, and trudged out to the cow pen. She herded a dozen head into a tiled alcove strewn with straw and manure, and began fixing rubber hoses to swollen udders.

Within minutes, milk was snaking through a maze of tubes to a copper-plated box the size of a cinder block, where the warmth was siphoned off and stored for heating everything from the Schneider’s bath water to their home.

Many residents of this farming village have also found creative ways to harvest energy, be it turning manure into biofuel or installing turbines in the local creek. Thanks to their ingenuity, Freiamt is not only energy independent, but produces 17 percent more power than it uses.

It’s a feat that defies conventional ideas about energy – that big companies are key to a secure supply, that renewable sources can only meet a fraction of society’s needs, that green energy is the domain of liberals and idealists.

“We’re talking about a village of traditional farmers, and yet they’re changing ideas about what is possible,” says Josef Pesch, CEO of FESA, a firm that develops community renewable-energy projects. “When it comes to renewables, Freiamt is a model for communities far and wide.”

Last year, the village generated 14.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity, or 2.1 million more than it used. That’s enough to power 600 additional German homes. For locals, who make their living mainly from tourism and agriculture, the turn toward green energy was less about big ideals than finding new income streams that wouldn’t harm the soil and forests.

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