South Dakotans Return from Renewables Study Tour in Germany, Austria

August 29, 2011

A group of South Dakotans has returned home after a week in Bavaria, Germany and Upper Austria touring renewable energy sites and learning about the expansion of the industry in those countries.

State Sen. Jason Frerichs (D-Wilmot), East River Electric Power Cooperative General Manager Jeff Nelson, and South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) Communications Director Chris Studer attended the Study Tour along with over a dozen other people from Colorado and Washington, D.C., including Jan Ahlen from National Farmers Union and Bill Midcap from Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. The Study Tour included site visits to several biomass, biogas, and photovoltaic (solar) systems across southern Germany and northern Austria. SDFU President Doug Sombke was not able to attend the Study Tour as originally scheduled.

Germany has become a leader in renewable energy implementation, currently producing 17-percent of the country’s energy demands through renewable projects. They use biomass, mostly wood chips and wood pellets that come from their forests, to heat homes and create electricity. They also have many biogas plants that produce energy from animal manure. Solar systems are seen across the country on rooftops and on agricultural land turned into solar parks.

“It was a remarkable opportunity to see a very aggressive effort that’s being made by the Europeans to implement renewables,” said Jeff Nelson. “We had the opportunity to see local ownership, to see farmers that have come together, much like they do in the United States, that join together on projects that are good for their communities.”

Germany has become a leader in renewable energy production because of a government implemented feed-in tariff which allows individuals and companies an opportunity to feed electricity produced locally into the power grid and get a guaranteed payment from the utility company that receives the energy. They have also made a commitment as a country to become more energy efficient while they increase their use of renewables.

“We saw a very clear grassroots level understanding of, and acceptance of, energy efficiency and renewable production as goals that must be undertaken in order to achieve energy security and energy independence,” Nelson said. “It does have a very strong top-down development of these principles. Having said that, it was very clear that at the grassroots level that is understood, accepted and being implemented.”

One of the first site tours was at one of Europe’s largest solar parks, and the seventh largest solar park in the world. It’s owned by Klaus Krinner, an entrepreneur and inventor who started as a strawberry farmer and developed a ground screw to serve as the base for solar panel installation. The solar park covers hundreds of acres and produces 54 Megawatts of power each year.

“When I think about the possibility of a project like this being able to materialize in South Dakota I know that it would be pretty difficult,” said Sen. Frerichs. “The price of solar panels continues to decrease, but we still need to develop the technology to properly store the electricity to provide a nice base-load source of power.  Consistent power and a consistent price would be a nice match and would perhaps offset the low price of electricity that we are fortunate to enjoy.”

“The photovoltaic in the United States has made some progress,” Nelson said. “The technology is still early, while the costs are coming down the costs in Germany clearly have offered an opportunity to drives those costs down. But those technologies do not go forward, even with the incentives, unless you have an entrepreneurial spirit which reminded me much of many of the rural producers that have done a good job in the U.S. in their own farming operations that have adopted value-added opportunities in the bioethanol industry in the United States.”

The Study Tour also included stops at several biomass production facilities where they produce wood chips or wood pellets for use in boilers that heat homes and create electricity. Germany has short rotation wood production farms where wood chips and sawdust are harvested and turned into fuels for biomass heat and electricity production.

“I was particularly impressed with how Germans and Austrians are using their forest resources to make renewable energy,” Studer said. “In some places they’re harvesting grasses and other materials to create energy as well. They’ve made a commitment to use the resources they have to become sustainable and energy independent, and we learned a lot of lessons in that regard that would benefit us here in the United States.”

During the tour it was evident that politicians and leaders in Germany and Austria have come together and made a commitment to become energy independent with the use of government funds and initiatives that encourage the use of renewables at the local level. 

“Because of the pricing that is rewarding renewables with very high tariffs, that is driving wealth into many of the rural areas,” Nelson said. “In the biomass developments and the solar developments we saw a very clear commitment to use their forests for biomass and those kinds of applications that is benefitting farmers and rural people and rural communities across the country. That is a much different commitment and approach than we see in the United States. However, having said that, East River Electric and the Farmers Union and other agriculture organizations have been working hard for many years to develop that connectional value between the rural areas and the development of new renewables. The biofuel industry’s ethanol is a great success story, and one we should be proud of. That is a part of what we saw happening across Austria and Germany.”

The tour is the first of three conducted through the Incubating Communities of Influence for Transformation of their Economies and Environment (I-CITE) project hosted by the Ecologic Institute in Berlin and Washington, D.C., and the Atlantic Council of Washington, D.C. The tour was supported by the European Union, German Federal Foreign Office and World Future Council.

You can see and read more about the trip at the SDFU Rural Lobbyist Blog and see pictures on the SDFU Facebook page.

Last Modified: 06/25/2014 12:22:02 pm MDT