Energy Remunicipalisation: How Hamburg is buying back energy grids, Part I

© dpa Photographer: Axel Heimken

On September 22 2013, 50.9% of the Hamburg citizens voted in a referendum for the full remunicipalisation of the energy distribution grids in the city. The referendum was initiated by the citizen’s initiative ‘Our Hamburg – Our Grid’ (OHOG) and constituted the climax of an intense political controversy that lasted for more than three years. Through this vote Hamburg has received international attention and became a flagship example for remarkable civil engagement. In the international best-seller “This Changes Everything” (2014), Naomi Klein sees the driving motive in the people’s ‘desire for local power’. Indeed it is true that under the constitution of the City of Hamburg, a successful referendum has a binding effect, which left the City government no other option than to announce the implementation of the referendum decision and to start the remunicipalisation process immediately after the vote. Now, three years after the referendum, it is time to evaluate what has been achieved so far. A series of interviews with key actors that were and, for the most part, still are involved in the remunicipalisation process shed some light on the remunicipalisation process and recent developments.

The Way towards the Referendum

„The first E-Mail came from you“, they say about Gilbert Siegler, who started the gathering of a broad spectrum of environmental, civil and church organisations back in 2010 that would later become the citizens’ initiative “Our Hamburg – Our Grid” (OHOG). For many of the activists, such as the leading campaigner of the initiative, Wiebke Hansen, the remunicipalisation question quickly became a “matter of the heart” and proxy to tackle climate change effectively by directly achieving access to the energy sector, putting the issue into the overall context of intergenerational justice.

The momentum was opportune. The anti-nuclear movement had just achieved a great success, mobilising 120 000 people protesting against the plans of the Federal Government to prolong the runtime of the German nuclear power plants, with the formation of a 120km long human chain between the two nuclear power plants Brunsbüttel and Krümmel. The chain also queued through the inner City of Hamburg, this event and the upcoming expiry of the concession agreements provided a fertile ground for the activists in the city to merge into the initiative that would three years later achieve the great success of winning the referendum on the remunicipalisation of the energy distribution grid.

At the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 20th century, the City of Hamburg privatised its energy distribution grids of electricity, gas and district heating – a decision that according to the current Senator for Environment and Energy, Jens Kerstan, has soon been severely regretted by many members across all parties and led to a “loss in political influence and the possibility to steer” within the energy sector.

However, despite this realisation the Senate led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under First Mayor Olaf Schloz were merely willing to buy back a blocking minority of 25.1% from the private energy utilities E.ON and Vattenfall owning the energy distribution grids in 2011. While Olaf Scholz and the City Government believed that this deal would allow sufficient control over the private network operators, OHOG, energy experts and even SPD members were not convinced that 25.1% are enough to achieve a proactive and progressive energy policy for Hamburg, including a decisive implementation of the Energiewende and an active engagement in climate mitigation by shifting towards renewable energies.

Instead the citizens’ initiative’s referendum text stipulated a more ambitious goal, which is separated below into the two core targets:

 “The Hamburg Senate and City Parliament are undertaking all necessary and legitimate steps in a timely manner, in order to

  • fully remunicipalise the Hamburg electricity, district heating and gas distribution grid in 2015.
  • The mandatory target is a socially just, climate-friendly and democratically controlled energy supply from renewable sources.”

At the beginning, the citizens’ initiative received broad approval in their intention to bring the energy distribution grids back into the public hand. One reason of OHOG’s success certainly was its heterogeneous composition that reflected society at large. Another was the initiative’s unifying assumption, which was also most tangible to the majority of Hamburg’s citizens despite the complexity of the topic: energy services are a matter of the common good and must not become object to the maxim of profit maximisation.

Yet, until the Election Day the outcome of the referendum was uncertain mainly due to the massive opposition forming up against OHOG, led by the political parties of SPD, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Liberal Party (FDP) and numerous organisations of trade and industry, such as the Chamber of Commerce, and of course the energy utilities Vattenfall and E.ON themselves. This led to a clear asymmetry in power and resources between the Yes and No campaign in the run up to the referendum. Manfred Braasch, managing director of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) in Hamburg and one of the leading lights of OHOG estimates the ratio of available resources with 1:100: “So we had one Euro and they at least a hundred to place respective ads, print material, etc.”  Another former member of OHOG, Dirk Seifert, illustratively recollects that each member of the citizens’ initiative was becoming “increasingly nervous […], since you walk through Hamburg and see with what public advertising force these companies [Vattenfall and E.ON] can cover the whole city […]. The evening the votes were counted was nerve-racking […] but in the end we could relax and had won.”

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016