Power from the People

The excitement generated in Vienna over the 45 nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) decision to open nuclear trade with India in early September was accompanied by two equally exciting events that took place in the city around the same time.

One was the visit of Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel peace prize winning United Nations panel of climate scientists. He came on the invitation of the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). The environmentalist was appointed UNIDO's goodwill ambassador and after the formalities were over he screened a short film made by India's Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) on providing people with lanterns powered by solar photovoltaic panels.

The film lauds the reliance on entrepreneurial skills to create benefits for society in line with the spirit of the institute where projects leading to the development of specific problem-based advanced technologies are both appreciated, and encouraged.

TERI was born more than three decades ago precisely to deal with the gradual depletion of the earth's finite energy resources that are non-renewable and polluting in the way that they are being used at the moment. Pachauri supports a TERI campaign, called "Lighting a Billion Lives", on domestic solar power generation. Electricity can be had by one billion people, most of whom have no access to the main electric grid, for the cost of one month's war in Iraq, Pachauri does not tire of repeating.

TERI's project to make solar lamps available in rural areas charged with solar-powered batteries at low rentals to help light a billion lives is as inspiring as this month's second  story that concerns Geussing, a tiny Austrian town of less than 30,000 people.

Situated on the Austro-Hungarian border, Geussing was almost a dead place two decades ago. One of the countries poorest regions, farmers struggled to make a living here growing corn and trying to hawk sunflower oil and timber.

Today Geussing is attracting worldwide attention as a model for the world's energy problems. Backward Geussing was once devoid of industry. The city was unable to foot its fuel bill of six million euros every year and those still living here thought that they were on the verge of doom. Unlike other young people who fled their place of birth, electric engineer Reinhard Koch decided to stay on. The cash crunch did not bother him. Koch thought if Geussing could produce everything it needed locally there would be little use for cash. He looked around the landscape, 45 per cent of which was covered by unused forests, and decided that the town switch to renewable energy. Community leaders began by convincing officials to ban the use of fossil fuels in all public buildings. This act reduced the energy bills of Geussing by almost 50 per cent.

The election of Peter Vadasz in 1992 as the mayor finally woke up the formerly sleepy Geussing. Vadasz encouraged a local project that required the building of a wood-burning plant to provide heating for 27 houses. This success was followed by a technique that turned rapeseed oil into car fuel. Together with Koch, Vadasz worked with scientist Hermann Hofbauer, who invented a technology to generate alternative fuel from wood. Vienna's Technical University joined hands with Hofbauer to watch wood chips gathered from the local forest gasified into fuel under high temperature conditions.

Soon the entire renewable energy experiment took off and Geussing's 27 different decentralised power plants became the talk of the towns elsewhere. Today, the energy turnover here is worth about 14 million euros, providing power to 1,500 households, schools and a hospital. The industrial and commercial sectors are heated by a biomass plant while 50 farmers are responsible for the distribution of fuel to different sectors in the city and electricity generation is a 150 per cent.

Much of the profit is naturally invested back into more renewable energy projects. The town is famous now for using clean energy that is affordable. People are flooding back into the area where similar enterprises provide thousands of new job opportunities even as the place remains unaffected by the rising price of oil and gas elsewhere.

Two decades ago, none would dream of associating an ill-lit Geussing with the glamorous world of tourism. Today, the region's reputation as an eco-tourism destination is soaring.

Nearly 30,000 visitors from all over the globe came here in 2007, mostly to find out how Geussing's switch to solar power, biomass and bio-diesel could eventually help the entire country to meet more than 50 per cent of its energy needs from renewables by 2020.