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John Riceburg: Power to the people!

This Sunday, Berliners will vote on the re-communalization of the energy grid. But do we really want the same government that has thrown away billions for the never-ending airport adventure to take over our electricity distribution?

Image for John Riceburg: Power to the people!
Photo by John Riceburg

When I was a child, it was lots of fun: with a pop, all the lights in the house would go out and my parents would search for flashlights and candles. During the blackout, which would last half an hour or more, there was no TV, but we could play a board game or learn how the house worked (who would have guessed the water would still flow without electricity?).

But those blackouts, which came at least once a year, were long ago and back in the United States. In my countless years in Germany I have never experienced a power outage. According to the official statistics, an average Berliner will be without electricity for just 10.7 minutes a year – and maybe I was asleep for those minutes because I haven’t noticed a thing.

Berlin’s electricity grid, in contrast to the long-suffering S-Bahn or the thoroughly ridiculed airport, actually works pretty well. But on November 3 (this Sunday), all Berlin residents with a German passport* can vote on what will happen with the grid. Is it a good idea to tinker with a working system?

The Berliner Energietisch (Berlin Energy Table), which collected 200,000 signatures in favour of the referendum, wants the grid to be re-communalized. This isn’t about the power plants but rather about the cables and substations that bring electricity to your house. The grid is sold off every 20 years and is currently run by a subsidiary of Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant which also sells electricity in Berlin. (Technically, it’s illegal for the same company to run the grid and feed electricity into it, but Vattenfall skirts that rule by claiming its wholly-owned subsidiary is a different company.)

The next concession is beginning in 2014 and the referendum is trying to force the Berlin Senat to buy back the grid and establish a communal electricity supplier. The grid alone might cost anywhere from €1 billion to over €3 billion, depending on who you ask. The governing parties have been terribly upset: they are spending several million euros to not hold the referendum on the day of the federal elections on September 22, as originally planned, when more voters would have turned out.

Just last week, the CDU and the SPD threw parliamentary norms out the window in order to rush a bill through the Abgeordnetenhaus to create a municipal utility company right before the polls open. This Babystadtwerk (mini-utility) would have a budget of just €1.5 million – enough to run about five wind turbines and provide power for 200 households! The only discernible purpose of this new power company is to confuse people about the referendum and keep them from voting.

Now, you might ask, do we really want the same government that has thrown away billions for the never-ending airport adventure to take over our electricity distribution? The Energietisch argues that citizens’ representatives would sit on the board of the new public electricity provider, not just the usual Berlin mafiosi and their political cronies. Plus, it will allow Berlin to transition to renewable energies: currently, the capital gets just 1.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, since Vattenfall uses coal for more than 90 percent of its energy.

The most important thing about a municipally-owned grid is that the profits would stay in the city. Last weekend, Vattenfall paid for four-page supplements in the big Berlin newspapers. These gigantic advertisements had a layout that looked just like Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost etc. so readers wouldn’t notice the articles praising Vattenfall weren’t normal editorial content. (Technically, it’s illegal for a grid to advertise, since they already have a monopoly, but Vattenfall again skirts this rule by saying that their subsidiary runs the grid.)

How much do you think this kind of advertising blitz costs? And where do you think the money comes from? That’s right – from you, me and everyone else who uses electricity in this city. Wouldn’t you rather see that money invested in renewable energy rather than marketing campaigns and dividends for stockholders? The entire logic of privatization has never worked out for consumers.

The referendum campaign has advertised that “Berlin without Vattenfall is like a Bundestag without the FDP.” I’m certainly not the only one who has felt more relaxed since Germany’s hyper-liberals got booted out of parliament. It wouldn’t bother me either if the giant Vattenfall sign disappeared from over Tresor. Come to think of it, maybe they could take Tresor along with them.

*If, like me, you aren’t allowed to vote, you can still go to the demonstration for the re-communalization of housing and energy. People will be banging pots on November 2 (this Saturday) at 14:30 at Kottbusser Tor, right in front of the “Kotti und Co” protest camp. And demonstrations are a fun activity for kids – almost as fun as a power outage!