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Germany's Green Lead

Following the green-living trail from one German village to an Idaho town

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It's a late fall morning in Lower Saxony--the kind that numbs your fingers if you're outside too long. For now, I'm warm, traveling with a group of other U.S. journalists in a bus that's almost too big for Juhnde's narrow streets.

Brick buildings are barely visible through the fog as we drive through the village. Juhnde is more than 1,000 years old. Its 750 residents live among rolling farmland and wooded hills. It's like many German villages with its narrow streets and small stone homes with terra-cotta roofs. A towering church steeple rises from the heart of town--a landmark if you stand on any one of these hills. But talk to any of the town's villagers, and they'll tell you Juhnde is special, different from other small communities. Juhnde is Germany's first community to be powered and heated by cattle manure and grain.

Juhnde's bio-gas power station and heating complex is nearly hidden by cornfields. It's on the edge of town, and it's become quite a tourist attraction in the last five years. Thousands of tourists visit this facility every year. The power station is the reason I'm here--to find out how this German village went off the grid.

Gerd Paffenholz is only too happy to oblige. He's lived in Juhnde for 20 years. At 70, he does what a lot of retired people do: He volunteers.

"Now if you are retired, you have much time to work for the bio-gas station," joked Paffenholz. We start the tour of the bio-energy plant outside in the fog and biting wind from the top of a large concrete underground storage tank.

The liquid manure in this tank gets pumped to a massive green tank, the anaerobic digester. There, microorganisms have a heyday eating manure and grains supplied by farmers in Juhnde. The bacteria create bio-gas, which then is combusted into heat and electricity.

You might expect the odor of manure to permeate the air. Instead, the smell is that of the freshness of the dew-covered countryside. Paffenholz says Juhnde used to have a distinct smell thanks to a dairy operation in town. But he said the bio-energy plant solved the odor problem. Now cattle manure from the dairy farm gets sent to the facility.

This plant with its two domed fermentation sites generates 700 kilowatts of power. The electricity gets sent to the public network, providing Juhnde with renewable power and an added bonus. Energy that's normally lost while making bio-gas is captured to heat water, and that hot water is delivered through a series of underground pipes to heat most of the homes in Juhnde.

Back in 2005, the town ripped up its sidewalks to install a hot water network. The pipes connect to 75 percent of Juhnde's homes and deliver hot water to heat these often drafty, old houses.

Paffenholz takes me into his basement to point out the small black plastic pipes bringing hot water to his home. He used to store a large oil tank here.

"The life quality for me is much better than before. I don't have to think about oil. I have warm water every time in my house without doing anything."

The oil tank is gone and so is the uncertainty of trying to buy oil at a good price.

"Our cost to heat our houses is lower than heating with oil, and what's important is this is stable," Paffenholz explained.

The village's bio-energy plant went live five years ago and cost nearly $8 million. The money came through a government grant and from residents like Paffenholz, who each ponied up thousands of dollars to join the plant cooperative. The village has also cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half. It now meets targets set by the European Union for 2050.

Juhnde has become a poster child among green circles in Germany, an example of what happens when a community agrees to become sustainable. It didn't happen overnight. Paffenholz acknowledges residents started to talk about the bio-energy plant in 1998. Seven years later, the plant went from the drawing board to reality.

Neighboring towns have followed Juhnde's lead. Just three miles away, another village is building a bio-energy plant to go off the grid and four other towns are doing the same, although Germany imports 70 percent of its energy.

"Our fossil fuels are running out by the end of century. And it's not just us, but the whole world," said Dr. Hans-Jurgen Froese, the deputy director of the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. That, and climate change, has motivated Germany's government to develop renewable energy from solar and wind to bio-energy plants.

Froese explained in order to have half the country powered by renewable energy by 2050, Germany will need about seven times more renewable energy than it currently has. Already, individuals can sell any excess renewable energy they generate to the grid. There are also high incentives and subsidies for farmers who grow crops for energy and for food.

The country's push for renewable energy is catching on. Fly over Germany and you'll see wind turbines scattered across farmland—20,000 to be exact. Farmers and energy co-ops operate some 4,000 bio-gas plants across the country. Office buildings, hotels and apartments sport small solar panels built into windows and on rooftops.

In Berlin, Germany's capital, some 7,000 photovoltaic panels cover rooftops. Even the Reichstag—Germany's parliament building—runs on renewable energy. It's heated and cooled through a stored underground water system. The switch to green power was meant to boost the country's reputation as a leader in renewable energy. In fact, Germany wants to be the first industrialized country in the world to be powered entirely by green energy.

But sustainability efforts that seem old hat in Germany are just beginning to catch on in the United States. Idaho already generates a considerable amount of power from renewable sources like water. But there's a new effort underway to get communities to create their own energy portfolio based on what's right in their back yards.

The Idaho Office of Energy Resources is behind this push. The agency, which Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter formed three years ago, wants to develop what are called Renewable Energy Enterprise Zones around the Gem State.

Paul Kjellander, executive director of OER, said when he took the job, he wanted to find ways to get counties and cities excited about renewable resources like dairy waste and wind. The renewable energy enterprise zones are meant do that, by funding projects communities propose. On one level, it's about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but Kjellander explained these zones are also about generating jobs and development in Idaho's rural counties.

Last year, counties and cities proposed 26 small-scale projects. OER used $1.5 million in federal stimulus dollars to award grants to 12 projects. Kootenai County received money to start turning landfill waste into methane to generate power, while Twin Falls will do something similar at its landfill and also set up wind turbines. In McCall, officials plan to install solar panels throughout the community.

"We have a good mix of projects," Kjellander said. "This will give rural communities an opportunity to explore what's in their own back yard and figure out ways to utilize it for future development."

OER expects more money to come through the federal stimulus to fund additional projects this year, and Kjellander believes the increased interest in renewable energy will continue.

"You're seeing across the board more of a desire to go after that low hanging fruit, which is energy efficiency," he said.

Some Idaho towns, though, are working harder than others to do that. Take Sandpoint, for example. OER awarded the North Idaho community $250,000 for what's being called the Sandpoint Woody Biomass Project. The money will help build a combined high-pressure steam woody mass boiler system to create both heat and power, and is estimated to create about 35 kilowatts of power. The total project is expected to cost $835,000.

That project has roots in a growing global movement known as the Transition Initiative, dedicated to creating sustainable communities that don't rely on fossil fuels. The initiative began in Ireland and England.

It's the brainchild of Rob Hopkins, a British educator who has taught permaculture and natural building in Ireland and beyond. He launched the first two-year full-time permaculture course in the world at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland and started the first eco-village development in that country before relocating to Totnes, England.

That's where Hopkins began an effort to re-localize that town. The volunteer effort brought old skills back like darning socks and planting trees. There are now more than 80 transition initiatives around England. In the last five years, the transition initiative has spread through Europe and now into the United States.

There are now more than 150 U.S. communities that have been designated "transition towns," including Sandpoint and Ketchum. Sandpoint was the second community to receive this designation, following Boulder, Colo. Ketchum was the third.

Visitors to Sandpoint know almost instantly that they've found someplace special. From the Long Bridge, the two-mile strip of pavement floating like a hover board over Pend Oreille River, to the cluster of red brick buildings that make up Sandpoint's quaint downtown, there's something different about Sandpoint and the some 6,000 people who call it home.

Karen Lanphear has seen it since she and her husband bought a home in Sandpoint in 1985. They lived abroad for years, coming and going. Now Lanphear is a permanent resident, and she's passionate about Sandpoint's future. This 63-year-old former educator has a vision for the community that's "sustainable, resilient and vibrant."

Lanphear hopes to accomplish that vision through Sandpoint's Transition Initiative, which she helped found two years ago. Now, she spends 40 to 50 hours a week trying to get more Sandpoint residents to buy into the idea of a sustainable community, much like Juhnde's residents did more than 10 years ago.

She explains it this way: There's a catastrophic earthquake in Idaho. Major roads are damaged. Gas stations can't refuel and store shelves are nearly empty. What does a community like Sandpoint do?

Transition towns prepare for the unimaginable and become self-sufficient. This isn't about building a bomb shelter stocked with canned food and water. It's more about living close to the earth, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and kicking oil to the curb.

Germany and Europe are years ahead of the United States in energy efficiency.

"They've had to deal with high energy prices and low amounts of domestic energy resources for a long time," said Jim McMillan, who works in research and development of bio-fuels at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

There's another major distinction between the United States and Europe. "Europe signed up to Kyoto. We didn't," said McMillan.

The 37 countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent compared to 1990 levels. The reductions are over a five-year period, which officially began in 2008.

Still, McMillan believes Juhnde has created an attractive model that could work in the northern United States and Canada, where people are more remote and winters are long and hard.

"It shows you what some wise investments and collective thinking can make happen," said McMillan.

While McMillan is impressed by Juhnde's model, it could be a tough sell in the United States.

"In Europe, I mean, they're built out much more than we are, and they are doing a lot more in building. Their density of building, the size of their square foot of their homes are much more right size, and so these solutions are easier to implement there, than they are here," he said.

Our attitudes are different, too. It took several years to get Juhnde's residents to buy into the idea of going off the grid, but now most everyone is on board. Here, a more individualistic spirit could hamper that effort. But McMillan sees promise in what Juhnde has accomplished.

"So one village is a good example, but we need to apply it across the board."

Those changes have different catalysts, but a common goal.

"In 2008, I was despondent about the state of the world," Lanphear explained of what got her involved in the initiative.

Rapidly melting glaciers, the ongoing war in Iraq, U.S. dependence on foreign oil: It was all getting to her. Then Lanphear met fellow Sandpoint resident Richard Kuhnel, an Austrian with a degree in eco-social design. Kuhnel had just returned from Totnes, England, where he learned about Hopkins' work and he wanted to bring those lessons back to Sandpoint.

"You have to subscribe to the principles of transition, which is about raising awareness and recognizing that the world is changing and we need to change with it," Lanphear said. The goal is to develop a plan for how Sandpoint residents want to live in the future. Communities then make decisions on everything from transportation to food production and energy needs.

Before that happens, the Transition Initiative calls for a great unleashing in each community. Two years ago, some 500 people packed Sandpoint's old movie theater, the Panida, for what Lanphear calls "the great unleashing weekend." It was basically a major push to "generate energy and awareness around this environmental movement and recruit volunteers" she said.

"We live in a county with 42,000 people surrounded by trees and water, and that's our heritage," said Lanphear. That's why she wants Sandpoint to come together to figure out the best way to use the land and its resources. "We are either going to sink or swim together," she said.

Now, some 25 to 30 active volunteers help spread the transition message around Sandpoint. They work in groups that address everything from health to energy needs.

"As a working group, you have to do demonstrable projects that bring more people in," explained Lanphear.

There are 12 steps communities like Sandpoint follow to get rid of oil and reduce their carbon footprint. There is even a handbook outlining these steps, which include forming a steering committee to guide the initial efforts and then disband. Other steps include raising awareness, and facilitating a great "re-skilling."

That's what really excites Lanphear. She talks about bringing back those skills our grandparents and great grandparents knew--canning vegetables and fruits, gardening, cooking and dying wool.

"It's not going back to ignoring the technology. We're not falling back into the dark ages," Lanphear said. But she does believe that we were more self-reliant in the early 1900s than we are now. Sandpoint's transition efforts are meant to restore that self-sufficiency.

Eventually, Lanphear envisions Sandpoint with its own bio-energy plant that would power the town and address greenhouse gas emissions. The transition initiative is "designed to empower communities, to take back their communities and lives," she said, adding that it's about "creating a world that's positive and enjoyable. This whole materialistic craze has to stop."

In the United States, a few towns—including those in Idaho—are attempting parts of Juhnde's efforts. Reynolds, Ind., replaced the town's vehicle fleet with cars and trucks that run on bio-fuel. It's now working with a company to turn algae into power. Grand Marais, Minn., plans to build a central-heating system for the community that burns wood chips from the local saw mill.

In Oregon, dairy farms in the Tillamook area truck manure to the Tillamook Digester Facility, which opened in 2003. This bio-energy plant consists of two 400,000-gallon digester cells. The bio-gas runs two Caterpillar engines, which are tied to a 200 kilowatt generator, and the electricity is sold to the local power company.

Idaho is also tapping into the power of manure. Last year, the Big Sky Dairy near Gooding flipped the switch on an anaerobic digester, fueled by the farm's roughly 4,700 cows and their manure. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission buys the power and the facility generates 1.5 megawatts of electricity.

These are large-scale efforts, but towns like Ketchum and Sandpoint are working more at the grass-roots level through transition initiatives. Eiron Schofield is one of the founding members of Community Rising in Ketchum and now sits on the steering committee. This transition effort began two years ago, about the same time Sandpoint began its transition initiative.

Schofield said that Community Rising has held awareness events over the past year, screening movies such as End of Suburbia and Food, Inc.

"We have given presentations to the local schools," Schofield said. "And we have a close relationship with our local food co-op, Idaho's Bounty, and have done several projects together, including producing a local food guide."

The goal, like in Sandpoint, is to "reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and rebuild a more localized economy," Schofield said. Focus has been largely on creating a sustainable food supply. "Ninety-eight percent of our food is trucked in," Schofield said. "That's why we've put so much time and energy into working with Idaho's Bounty to create and sustain a local food network."

Since Community Rising began, groups involved with the movement are working to eliminate plastic bags and have explored creating a local currency. That's hit a snag, said Schofield, since First Bank of Idaho has closed.

"We were working very close to having them on board to back a local currency." Part of the transition movement is to develop a local currency meant to help communities withstand a disaster or an economic recession.

Boise doesn't have a transition initiative, although there is similar work being done through Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho. Its mission is to promote all things local from business to green development.

What's happening in Boise, Sandpoint and Ketchum is part of a growing trend. Communities and states are taking action on climate change, local economies and energy sustainability instead of waiting for Congress to act.

Kjellander believes projects like the state's Renewable Energy Enterprise Zones will help address climate change and the economy.

"It's not about green for the sake of being green. It's green for the sake of greenbacks," he said. The dollar will, in the end, change behaviors. "It's not brain surgery to add insulation in your house or to put in energy efficient windows. These aren't difficult or impossible to do, and they have tremendous dollar values."

It can be as simple as planting your own garden or as complex as uniting a tiny German village to build a bio-energy plant. But Lanphear believes it has to start somewhere. "In America, there's such a maverick attitude about everything," she said. "We don't look to our European brethren."

While she can see Sandpoint being entirely self-sufficient, she's also realistic. She knows it will take economic incentives and small steps for towns like Sandpoint and Ketchum to move in Juhnde's direction. Ultimately, Lanphear believes making changes comes down to education. "How else will we change our fears?" she asked.