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2nd Dec 2023

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Berlin citizens keen to buy their electricity grid

  • Campaign poster in Berlin (Photo: Valentina Pop)

People living in Berlin are heading to the polls on Sunday (3 November) in a referendum on buying back the city's electricity grid from Swedish energy giant Vattenfall.

Vattenfall means "waterfall."

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The state-owned giant was created over 100 years ago to manage Sweden's numerous hydroelectric plants. But it has since expanded abroad, acquiring energy grids and power stations, including nuclear and coal facilities.

In Germany, 80 percent of the energy which Vattenfall provides comes from the most polluting form of fossil fuel: brown coal.

It operates a large, opencast, coal mine in the former East German region of Lausitz.

The project has already levelled dozens of villages.

The Swedish firm now plans to make it even bigger, destroying also the village of Proschim, near the German-Polish border.

Cash-strapped municipalities have been unable to stop Vattenfall bulldozers so far.

But the project is being used against the Swedish firm in campaigning ahead of Sunday's vote.

It is also putting pressure on German politicians, who live in Berlin, and who often talk about Germany's "energy shift" toward renewable sources.

If one quarter of the 2.5 million voters in Berlin say Yes to the grid buyback and Vattenfal is ejected from the German capital, it could see regional governments halt the firm's coal mine expansions.

In technical terms, Berlin city hall would buy the grid by bidding against Vattenfal in a public tender under which the firm is trying to renew its operating licence for another 20 years. The current licence expires at the end of 2014.

The referendum was initiated by Energietisch, a citizens' initiative.

When asked how the heavily-indebted city could afford to pay the cost - estimated to be at least €1 billion - Energietisch's spokesman, Stefan Taschner, told press this week that Berlin could get a loan for an initial investment and pay off the rest via the profit which the grid generates.

Last year alone, Vattenfall made €150 million in profits from the Berlin distribution network.

But with the local assembly of Berlin urging voters to say No in the referendum, Taschner admitted that Energietisch is fighting an uphill battle.

"The Senate of Berlin tabled its own plan for a public energy grid. But they are just misleading the public, as it would not give citizens any real control over where to buy the energy," he said.

He noted, however: "Over 200,000 people have already cast their vote in advance by post - a much higher number than in any Berlin referendum so far."

He added: "We will clearly get more Yes votes than No. The only question is if we'll have the necessary 625,000 Yes votes to validate the referendum."

Meanwhile, a parallel citizens' initiative, Buergerenergie Berlin, has an even bolder idea: for Berliners to pay for the grid themselves.

Buergerenergie Berlin is not part of Energietisch. It is also campaigning for a Yes vote, but it says some of the grid's profits should end up in ordinary people's pockets.

Louise Neumann-Cosel, a Buergerenergie Berlin activist, told this website: "We are an independent initiative seeking to bring the electricity network back into the hands of citizens. We would co-operate with the city of Berlin for the management of the network, but our model is based on small investments - so the people who pay for the grid would also get some of the money back over time."

She noted that the referendum still has to be won, however.

In another sign of official opposition, she pointed out the Berlin Senate refused to organise the grid vote at the same time as German general elections in September, making it harder for the buyback referendum to get a decent turnout.

"It will be very tight," Neumann-Cosel said.

The Berlin vote is not without precedent.

A similar citizens' initiative in Hamburg in September succeeded in winning a local referendum on buying back the city's grid from Vattenfall, estimated at €2 billion.

For its part, the Swedish firm told EUobserver the Berlin vote is a "political issue we do not interfere with."

Its spokesman, Hannes Hoenemann, noted that even if Berliners vote Yes, it will compete against them in the tender for who will own the grid until 2035.

Amid the Lausitz coal mine criticism, he added that the negative campaign against his company "troubles some of our employees, who do a good job here with the Berlin network."

He also warned that if Vattenfall loses the Berlin grid, it will take away the specialists which are needed to run it properly.

"Fifteen years ago, the city sold the grid. Now they changed their mind. But [technological] competence has moved into the private sector," he said.

"If they buy back the grid, they will get the cables and the buildings, but not all employees will automatically shift to the new structure. The IT department, human resources and so on - all that is Vattenfall," he added.

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