Josef Pesch–Strom Rebel of Freiburg

By Paul Gipe

Pesch was named a strom (electricity) rebel by Elektritzitätswerke Schönau (EWS) in 2005 and that was a good reason for paying him a visit. The good folks at EWS know strom rebels when they see them. They themselves were dubbed strom rebels by German author and lecturer Franz Alt in one of his recent books. 

I first saw Pesch in Berlin a few years ago when I caught sight of his tie. Yes, Pesch is the man behind the famous German windmill tie. Well I wanted to know how I could get one and he took his off and gave it to me on the spot. “That’s a man who knows how to get things done,” I thought. That’s the tie that’s now worn not only by community wind activists across Germany but also by Canadian politicians, most notably Prince Edward Island’s Minister of Energy Jamie Ballem.

Pesch is also the man behind FESA, a now private firm that develops community-owned renewable energy projects. FESA organizes these Bürgerbeteiligungs or share cooperatives around solar, wind, and wood-pellet fired district heating plants. There are lots of trees in the Schwartzwald and with it forestry. So there’s an ample supply of saw dust used for the pellets.

FESA grew out of an association of activists–the founding fathers of the solar movement in Freiburg–to develop community renewable energy projects. FESA built an early 50 kW solar plant and followed that with a 100-kW project on Freiburg stadium circa 1995. (These old projects switched to the EEG in 2000. “They now make money,” says Pesch).

Projects today typically require investors to put up 30% of the equity, the remainder is financed with debt.

Pesch joined FESA in 1999 and quickly built up the wind portfolio. He took FESA (the project development company) out of FESA (the association). FESA is now a private company

His wood pellet project sold out to investors within 3 weeks. The interest in the project was so high that Pesch was left with a 100% oversubscription.

“Farms here are not very rich, because they are small,” says Pesch in explaining why southern Germany’s farmers were quick to consider renewables as a new source of income. “Farmers were the pioneers of wind energy in Germany,” he says.

Despite their low incomes farmers have less problems finding money than others because farmers have land they can use as collateral.

As the son of a farmer in central Germany, Pesch was always interested in the weather. As a

result when he was on the faculty at the University of Münster he did some early work on wind resources.

Eventually, his career came full circle. He remembers as a child seeing his father’s grain ground at a local windmill. He came to FESA through his interest in wind energy and his interest in a non-traditional approach to development, relying on community involvement.

Nearly all German wind turbines are in private hands notes Pesch. “We’re creating a class of entrepreneurs,” he adds. “Wind would not exist if it relied on the investments of the big utilities, the earnings are too low because the winds are too low [in Germany]. Wind would never have been developed,” he says, because the returns (6-12% ROI for projects in Germany) are too low.

Yet, private citizens (the Bürgers of Bürger wind projects) are willing to invest for such earnings. Half of the investors in FESA’s Freiamt project probably never invested in anything before, he suspects. Now they are co-owners of a small wind farm.

In another FESA project, Regio Wind, the 521 owners invested 4.2 million Euros in a 13 million Euro project. Half to two-thirds of the investors were local, another 10% were from the region of Baden-Würtemberg, the remainder came from elsewhere in Germany.

His views on community ownership of renewable energy are simple enough. “Those who consume electricity should also be part of the solution,” say Pesch. “This is the right thing to do.”

Clearly, Josef Pesch is a strom rebel.