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Unequal Enemies

How Towns Are Fighting for Their Power Grids


ZDFzoom, 2014, 30 minutes

Everyone was against it – the political parties SPD, CDU, and FDP; the trade associations; and, obviously, the previous operators E.ON and Vattenfall. But the citizens of Hamburg resolutely voted via referendum for the city to resume full control of the power grids sold in 2002. It’s called deprivatization – taking infrastructure into public ownership.

Hamburg is not alone. By 2015, more than 7.800 of the 14.300 power grid concessions in Germany will expire. Operating concessions are renewed only once every twenty years. Network operators have a monopoly with a built-in profit guarantee – about a quarter of the private electricity price flows to them. Many local authorities have now understood this and want to get the billion-euro business back. But when the new concessions are tendered out, the small-town volonteers frequently charged with the task find themselves facing mega-corporations. In a study from 2013, the independent Wuppertal Institute found: “The power giants systematically obstructed the transfer of operations, through law suits, threats and inflated purchase prices.” “ZDF Zoom” polled local authorites throughout Germany and compiled their experiences: In Schleswig-Holstein, e.g., more than one hundred upset mayors, organized in a consumer group, complained about delay and intimidation tactics purportedly employed by E.ON. In Bocholt (North Rhine-Westfalia), the grid was successfully transferred to the municipal energy supplier, but the court battle with RWE over the purchase price continues. And in Baden-Württemberg, a number of municipal utilities are threatened by doubts raised concerning the award procedure.