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Green energy ideas from Germany | News, Sports, Jobs


Photo by Clay Schuldt
Guido Wallraven, left, tours New Ulm’s power plant with representatives of Region Nine.

NEW ULM — A delegation representing Saerbeck, Germany, Region Nine and the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment met with New Ulm and area city officials Wednesday as part of a roundtable on energy conservation and sustainability goals.

Many of those attending the discussion were part of a similar panel discussion held last March. That meeting was led by Guido Wallraven via video conference. Wallraven is the technical director for the city of Saerbeck, Germany, and he was attending in person Wednesday.

Saerbeck is a community of 7,200 residents in Germany that began implementing climate-smart projects in 2009. Wallraven was in charge of implementing about 150 individual initiatives that promote and implement local climate protection. Working with local citizens, the community transformed a former ammunition depot into a bioenergy park with a mix of renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass.

The result is a community that produces three times more electricity than the community needs and cuts its carbon footprint in half.

Following the success of Saerbeck, Wallraven has been working on municipal climate protection issues for more than 15 years. Wallraven now serves as a consultant to municipalities and cities on local measures that support sustainability. For this latest meeting, Wallraven personally visited New Ulm.

This meeting comes in the wake of Gov. Tim Walz signing a bill requiring Minnesota’s electrical utilities to transition to 100 percent carbon-free energy sourced by 2040. This gives Minnesota 17 years to transition away from coal and natural gas.

With this timeline, New Ulm wanted to have conversations with Saerbeck, a community that has undergone the transition. New Ulm City Manager Chris Dalton noted Saerbeck completed their project in 14 years.

Wallraven said the initial motivation for Saerbeck to implement a climate-smart project was connected to community leaders wanting to make improvements for future generations.

Wallraven made it clear that Saerbeck’s success was connected to citizen involvement. The residents of Saerbeck got behind the smart-climate work. At the same time, the German government was supporting renewable energy adoption.

Dr. Sabine Engle of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Environment said in the year 2000, the Green Party became a member of the German government, leading to a Green Energy schedule — similar to the legislation signed by Walz. Early adopters of renewable electricity were rewarded. People were able to invest in renewable electricity.

Engel said in 2008, when the great recession hit, renewable energy investments were some of the best investments remaining. Many German farmers invested at that time because the German commissioner for the environment encouraged them to invest. Many farmers began using land to harvest wind energy, effectively becoming energy farmers.

Wallraven said Germany has a strong desire to be energy independent. Due to limited fossil fuels in Germany, the country was dependent on importing oil and gas, creating a volatile market. In the last year, the desire to be energy independent increased throughout Germany, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wallraven said more than 50% of Germany’s natural gas and oil was coming from Russia.

New Ulm Public Utility Director Kris Manderfeld said a survey several years ago indicated the public wanted renewable options, but questions of cost stopped the conversation. She believed if the survey was conducted now, the results would be different, but said residential customers would need the motivation to switch to renewables.

New Ulm has solar installations now with additional panels going up each year. Local utilities buy back energy put into the grid.

“We’re seeing that change where people are more interested in self-sufficiency in their own homes,” Manderfeld said.

Wallraven said part of the challenge is getting people to accept a new way. In order to do that, the community needs to see the project in action and educate people at the same time.

One of the most important aspects of the project was educating the youth. By educating students as young as kindergarten, they were able to raise the next generation to be aware of energy alternatives and spread this education to their parents.

Dalton believed New Ulm was in a unique position in which many people are looking for investment opportunities. He said there are parks to which people will donate without returns on investments.

He believed there is money for green energy projects.

Region Nine Community Development Planner Paola Ferrario suggested Minnesota’s move toward renewable energy could be attractive to new businesses, including foreign investors. There is a delegation of German companies visiting the Midwest in March.

“The Germans are very interested in coming to our area,” Ferrario said.

New Ulm power plant supervisor-chief engineer Glen Hillesheim had a question on geographical challenges of supplying power to a larger region. He said the city tried wind power, but it was a hard sell in the region.

Manderfeld explained public utilities looked into wind turbines a few years ago. According to studies the best location to place a windmill in their area was in Nicollet County, but the county put a moratorium in place preventing the construction of wind turbines.

Engel said energy production changes rapidly and what was true years ago, could have changed. Advances in technology could allow wind turbines to be placed elsewhere and be just as efficient.

Hillesheim said there was a desire to place wind turbines by a substation. New Ulm will likely need a new substation on the west side of the community.

The round table discussion concluded with a tour of the New Ulm Power plant, including a discussion of the steam generation system.

Hillesheim said there are infrastructure needs for the steam system. Many of the businesses in downtown New Ulm connected to steam have thermostat issues that make it difficult to control heat, leading to energy waste.

Upgrades to the city’s steam system were viewed as a potential renewable energy project.

Some of the delegations later toured Black Frost Distillery, one of the latest businesses to connect the steam system.

The discussion with the delegation and community shareholders were the first steps in determining how to move New Ulm and the region into regional energy alternatives.

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