|Ursula Sladek/Courtesy of the Goldman Environment Prize|
I wrote a piece for the Guardian this Saturday about Ursula Sladek, who created one of Europe’s first green energy companies, owned by the people for the people, while raising five kids. What interested me in this story is that she was just an ordinary person without any scientific or business training – and already more than busy with her large family – yet, she decided she had to do something after the Chernobyl meltdown 25 years ago.
Sladek, 64, never planned to create a power company, but felt compelled to act when radioactive residues from Chernobyl some 2000 km away were found on the playgrounds, gardens and farmlands of Schönau, the small Black Forest town where she lives with her family.
“I had to think about whether my children could eat our spinach and lettuce or drink our milk, and whether they could play in the sandpit. I also knew I needed to look at the broader picture and question the use of nuclear energy. You cannot have five children and not care about the world they have to live in,” she says.
So Sladek, her husband, a GP, and a group of like-minded parents began researching the energy industry in Germany to see if they could limit their community’s dependence on nuclear power.
They started small, researching how energy was produced and how they could save it. Then they tried to motivate the whole town into saving energy by running campaigns and competitions. Later, when the regional power company refused to increase renewable energy and reward efficiency, they decided to take over the grid themselves. “It was a crazy idea because none of us knew how to run an electricity company.”
Sladek and her group created Schönau Power Supply (EWS), a citizen-owned cooperative, and launched campaigns to be allowed to manage the grid and raise the necessary funds. “We had to learn how to act politically, how to campaign, how to run a company and an awful lot about electricity. When I started, the only thing I knew was that electricity was coming out of the socket. But learning all this was not too difficult. If you really want something, you can learn what you need,” she simply says.
From providing one million kilowatt hours to 1,700 customers in 1998, EWS now provides over 400 million kilowatt hours to over 100,000 customers throughout Germany. And Sladek is hoping for one million customers by 2015.
And with a flurry of new customers wanting to switch to EWS after Fukushima, Sladek is busier than ever. “I would have liked to have more time for my children and now my grandchildren. But actually, I am doing what I do for them, and they know it. It is their future I am trying to protect and so I really think it is worth it.”
Last month, Sladek was named European winner of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of Nobel Prize for environmental heroes.
You can read my Guardian article here.