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The Village That Aims for Energy Autarky

Monday 23 June 2008 – truthout

by: Jean-Pierre Stroobants, Le Monde

“Mir hunn energie!” – “We have energy!” The slogan is everywhere in Beckerich. On building facades, official documents, in the heads of ecologist Deputy-Mayor Camille Gira’s fellow citizens. This fiftysome-year-old, who boils over with ideas and plans, has set an objective for his rural commune, located in the west of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg: energy autarky.

To give the 2,700 inhabitants mastery over their energy supply “instead of depending on Arab Sheikhs,” as he says. This warm, direct and patient man has worked toward that end for a quarter century, since he became first alderman (assistant mayor), then burgomaster of this rural burg, situated a stone’s throw from the Belgian border.

In these times of steep rises in energy prices, with a liter of heating oil in the Grand Duchy at .90 euros – versus .30 euros five years ago – Camille Gira is not the type to gloat. But he knows that he was right to develop – among others – a system of urban heating based on bio-methanization. Some 90 percent of Beckerich households are now connected to that system and save some 500 euros each and every year compared to the cost of average heating oil consumption.

“The money is obviously not the only factor that must be taken into consideration,” the mayor emphasizes. “I am concerned about environmental and social questions, but I’ve learned to use concrete arguments first of all. Then, to act in such a way that once they’ve joined the program, citizens have no further practical worries.” So, they sign a co-ownership contract for one of the photovoltaic installations on the public buildings made available to them for free and they don’t have to worry about anything else. A public governing body will manage all these little independent solar energy producers’ interests and formalities.

On the commune’s heights, Constant Kieffer is more than a little proud to show what he calls “the cow’s stomach.” With a half-repressed smile and elfin eye, the Biogas manager likes nothing more that to observe the face of visitors when they first observe the bacterial action in his digester through a peephole. Liquid manure, vegetal waste and vegetable oils are poured into this enormous vat covered with a dome, a medium brought to 38 degrees centigrade and deprived of oxygen. At the end of 40 days, biogas is released, which, when burned, will produce electricity for 700 households and hot water for the heating network: 24 kilometers of pipes that enter houses and supply radiators and water heaters. The residue will be used as fertilizer.

To realize his plan, Camille Gira convinced 19 farmers to found a cooperative and invest 5 million euros. Some went so far as to mortgage their farms, but none have expressed the slightest regret: the success has far exceeded their hopes. “When they saw this unit go up, people really began to adhere to our plans,” Camille Gira notes.

Today, demand in the commune is such that Biogas no longer suffices. So, a little further down the road, a team of workmen from Austria are raising a 30 meter high furnace. Starting in October, it will burn wood chips that will provide heat. The wood will come from the 700 hectares of communal forest, 400 hectares of which belong to 260 private owners. City Hall has proposed that they sell or exchange their land. It has also decided to inaugurate 15-year contracts based on barter: the owners will be able to choose to supply wood in exchange for a reduction in their energy bill.

Christian Seidel, a village resident, was one of the first to believe in City Hall’s green energy projects. He paid 2,300 euros and exchanged his oil-burning furnace for a one meter by one meter case in which the exchange of entering hot and departing cold water takes place. “With the network passing right in front of my house, the system requires neither upkeep on a furnace nor chimney cleaning and I save some 400 euros a year,” he explains. Since then, Mr. Seidel, like 10 percent of the residents, has installed solar panels on his roof.

“It’s true people have stopped taking us for lunatics,” Camille Gira comments discreetly. In 1995, as a member of the project International Climate Alliance, he committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Beckerich 50 percent by 2010. That goal will be reached. And autarky? “By 2020, perhaps, but what’s important is the goal, not the date,” the mayor maintains. He knows the rules of marketing, and knows that by setting such an objective for his fellow citizens, he fosters their mobilization.

In the years to come, he is promising them access to wind power. He induces them to change out their electric appliances with bonuses – 38 euros for the purchase of a low-energy refrigerator – to renovate their homes by insulating them better, recover rain water etc. Beckerich households’ electricity consumption has, in any case, dropped 7 percent per year since 1994, while it has grown 2-3 percent in the rest of the country.

Because City Hall knows that’s it’s always necessary and good to provide an example, it everywhere practices what it preaches. At the Oberpallen School, the paints used are mineral-based and the electric cables without PVC. The Sports Center is insulated with a thermally-treated wood that makes it durable. In the commercial area, the main building has a wood frame, triple glazed windows, and a geo-heat, cooling and ventilation system. At the Dillendapp Center, where school-age children go before and after school hours so their mothers may freely work, the lighting system is self-regulating and the air constantly renewed.

From a window in this magnificent building, Camille Gira shows another of his accomplishments: a dedicated section of forest that allows cave swallows, a threatened species, to continue to nest on the ground. “Maybe we’ve already missed the climate change train. But at least I will have demonstrated that it’s possible to change a society, even one that is well-known as conservative,” he concludes.

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