The Bioenergy Village


Lars Degenhardt and Marianne Karpenstein-Machan are members of a team of scientists at the University of Göttingen who are engaged in the "Bioenergy Village" Project. Both with different scientific backgrounds, they are writing about their experience in this interdisciplinary undertaking. If you are interested in a little more background about interdisciplinary projects, please read Next Wave's recent article about sustainability research in Germany.

We are working in a team at the "Interdisciplinary Center for Sustainable Development" ( Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Nachhaltige Entwicklung) at the University of Göttingen on a pilot project called "Bioenergy Village" (" Bioenergiedorf"). The model village of Jühnde, which has 760 inhabitants, is located in southern Lower Saxony. The project is financed by the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food, and Agriculture, in cooperation with the Agency of Renewable Resources (Fachagentur für Nachwachsende Rohstoffe). An interdisciplinary team of 16 researchers, including economists, social scientists, psychologists, and agronomists, cooperate on the project.

The purpose of the project is to switch the electricity and space-heat supply from conventional to biomass energy sources, and to demonstrate its practical use through the active participation of the population of a village. Our science team at the university seeks to increase public awareness about bioenergy and develop the technical, agricultural, and social information necessary to transfer this concept to other environmental protection projects.

Technically, it has been possible for many years to use biomass for heat energy and electricity. In Jühnde, electricity needs are met by an anaerobic digestion plant that generates biogas which is burned in an attached co-generation plant. Surplus heat energy from power generation is fed into a hot-water pipeline, which is connected to every house in the village and used for both hot water and space heating. In winter, more heat energy is required than can be delivered by the anaerobic digestion plant. A district heating plant, fired by wood chips, meets the higher winter demand for heat. Locally produced biomass such as wood, agricultural crops, and liquid manure from farm livestock can also be used in the energy plant.

The expensive hot-water pipeline is economically sound only if the majority of households in a village decides to participate in the district heating system. The success of the bioenergy village project is dependent on the majority of the village households deciding to get their heating energy from the district heater via the pipeline.

Agricultural part (PD Dr. Marianne Karpenstein-Machan)

As an agronomist, this project is a great challenge for me. For the past 15 years I have worked in the field of crop science at the University of Kassel. My research was focused on energy-crop production. I left traditional fields of crop science in favor of energy-crop production for several reasons. Until recently, energy crops have received little attention from researchers. Yet the demand for such technologies is clear: On one hand, the surplus production in European agriculture is an international problem; on the other hand, fossil fuels are being depleted and the CO2 they produce threatens to change the global climate. In the mid-1980s, the cultivation of energy crops was rejected in public discussions. It was feared that the cultivation of renewable (but not sustainable) energy crops would cause a new wave of intensification in agriculture, with all of its negative consequences for the environment.

From the beginning, our research team at the University of Kassel worked to avoid environmental problems in the cultivation of energy crops. Our goal was to develop cultivation concepts that would lead to sustainable energy-crop production, since cultivation management and conversion of biomass to energy should not be achieved at the expense of other environmental concerns such as soil erosion, the pollution of drinking water, and monoculture.

We developed a "double cropping system" and tested it for more than 10 years in field experiments. The goal of double cropping is to increase biodiversity with several crops in the rotation, intercropping, and mixing species. By using this system, the demands for cultivation without pesticides can be achieved. The crops provide soil cover year round and in this way prevent soil erosion and nitrate leaching, which should lead to an improvement in groundwater quality.

The time of reckoning has now arrived in the project. The time has come to put into practice and examine all that has been achieved in many years of research. First of all, the farmers of the village must be convinced to incorporate the double-cropping system into their crop rotation. It is very important that farmers use the ecological cultivation methods that we have developed, since the energy crops are to be produced in a groundwater-protection area.

After the establishment of the cultivation concept, we hope that research will demonstrate that the goal of an ecological cultivation of energy crops has been achieved.

Social part (Sociologist Lars Degenhardt)

Central to the project is the social dimension. Widespread participation is essential, so the motivation of individuals and groups to participate must be a focus of the experiment. Thus, the project not only consists of technical implementation, but also of "social implementation." The core questions of the analysis of the social implementation are the following: How can we best overcome nontechnical barriers so that we can use the immense potential of biomass to convert the energy systems in rural areas into environmentally friendly ones? Which procedures of public relations and problem solving, and which models of participation planning, motivate people best and integrate them most effectively into the transformation process? What changes will occur through the rearrangement of the village's culture, the social relationships and structures, the individual and collective well-being, and the community of the participants?

We have found that it is important for citizens to participate in planning processes from the beginning. The goal of this planning process is to achieve as high a participation rate as possible and, consequently, a high connection density is required for the project to be economically viable. Moreover, democratic behavior will be learned through the participation in the planning. Decision-making processes as well as the integration into the social system will be strengthened.

From my point of view as a social scientist, this project is a challenge because it deals with the organization of social processes. For quite some time now, I have worked with different planning methods and their social transposition both in theory and in practice. This project provides an opportunity to initiate a planning process, to test different methods, and to examine their social effects scientifically.

Beyond the organization and evaluation of the planning process, it is interesting to see if and how lifestyles in the village are changing as a result of the planning processes. Sociological researchers have generally agreed that the overall objective of global sustainable development can only be achieved if human lifestyles are changed to reflect the ecological, social, and economic challenges of today. I have recently worked on a research project dealing with sustainable development and the introduction of sustainable principles into the lives and daily decisions of individuals. This project provides an opportunity to identify different lifestyles in the village of Jühnde and to examine possible changes in individual lifestyle dimensions scientifically such as "fixed orientation" and "concrete behaviour."

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