Solar panels on a farm in Germany. (Photo by Ingmar Zihorsky via Creative Commons)

Germany’s electricity grid operators warned last month that if the country wants to meet its goal of phasing out nuclear power by 2022, it’s going to need more than 2,300 miles of additional transmission lines to carry electricity from new renewable sources.

The scale of grid expansion, let alone the gigawatts of proposed offshore wind farms and other renewable generation that will have to be built, has some questioning whether the post-Fukushima energy transition is realistic.

There may be another way for Germany — and the world — to meet its renewable energy goals, and it leads through the rural countryside.

Germany is seeing a “rural energy revolution,” according to a report from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a nonprofit with ties to the country’s Green Party. German farmers are pooling resources with their neighbors to buy and install solar panels, erect wind turbines, and build biogas digesters and district heating systems.

It’s all happening under the umbrella of a new wave of rural renewable energy cooperatives. More than 430 renewable energy cooperatives have been formed in Germany since 2006. Of the 250 new co-ops established in the country last year, 158 were energy-related.

A pair of German energy co-op experts, Andreas Wieg and Michael Diestel, are on a Midwestern tour this week, sponsored by Heinrich Böll, to share the success story. Their visit is also supported by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

“People learned you can achieve more together,” Wieg, of the German Cooperative and Raiffeisen Federation, said in an interview earlier this week. Many farmers could afford to purchase solar panels on their own, but fewer could achieve the scale of energy projects being tackled by the country’s renewable cooperatives.

It’s a small, but growing, phenomenon. These new renewable cooperatives count about 100,000 people as members. They’ve collectively invested about $300 million in distributed renewable projects, about 1 percent of the country’s total renewable investments in that period, Wieg said.

Their projects are coming at a time when Germany is working toward aggressive renewable energy goals passed last year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The country plans to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022, and it wants to get 35 percent of its electricity from renewables by the end of the decade, and 80 percent by 2050.

Wieg said Germany’s major power companies have responded by pursuing large, centralized renewable projects, such as offshore wind farms, which require miles of new transmission line to move power to where it’s needed. The transmission upgrades needed to support centralized projects is an added expense, and another hurdle. As is the case in the U.S., many Germans object to new transmission lines crossing their communities.

The rural renewable co-op solution is effective, Wieg explained, because power can be generated locally where it is needed, reducing the need for major grid upgrades. And people are less likely to oppose the necessary infrastructure because they share an ownership stake in the projects.

The earliest projects in this new wave of rural energy cooperatives were mostly solar photovoltaic installations, but some have since taken on more advanced projects such as wind and biogas. The village of Großbardorf, with fewer than 1,000 people, invested $19 million over four years in solar and biogas. A district heating system attached to the combined-heat-and-power biogas plant supplies about 50 percent of the village’s heating needs. Altogether, the village generates four times its own electricity needs.

Would it work here? A lack of a feed-in tariff and other renewable incentives would certainly make it more difficult, but Wieg said Germany’s cooperative model could be adapted for the United States, and the Midwest, which already has many agricultural cooperatives, could be fertile ground.

“You have to find your own solution,” Wieg said.

Diestel, a manager of the Bavarian Farmers’ Association, believes these democratic cooperatives are a way to revitalize rural communities, and also the best path toward achieving renewable energy goals.

“We don’t need a national plan,” Diestel said. “We need a village plan.”

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