For decades small rural communities in America have been in decline suffering population loss due to lack of jobs. Some communities have seen a boost in their economy due to fracking. But the communities that are not located near shale formations are left out of this shale boom.
Perhaps communities, especially those in mountain areas where the forests have been decimated by beetle kill, should take a close look at how a small Austrian town reversed its fortunes through renewable energy, and brought new businesses and jobs to their withering town.
Güssing is a small town of 4,000 in eastern Austria near the Hungarian border. It is in the poorest region of Austria. Despite having a large, impressive medieval castle on a hill in the center of town, it was in decline. The village did not much to attract jobs for its high school graduates. Unemployment was high and 70% of those with jobs commuted to Vienna 100 miles away.
Laurie Guevara Stone, a writer for the Rocky Mountain Institute, reports on this. In the 1990's the town could hardly pay its $8.1 million a year energy bill for heating oil and coal to generate electricity. To save money they wanted to be energy self sufficient. The first step was to reduce energy use. The town retrofitted all public buildings with new insulation and replacing all streetlights with energy-efficient bulbs, reducing energy expenditure by almost 50 percent.
Then the town adopted a policy calling for the complete elimination of the use of fossil fuels in all public buildings, in an attempt to keep more money in the local economy.
Güssing is surrounded by 328 acres of forest. The wood in the forest was being used. They started a district heating station for six homes. That was a success so more district heating systems were built. The mayor took notice. In 1996, the heating system was expanded to the whole town and it was also generating electricity, all from renewable raw materials gathered from within a five-kilometer radius through sustainable forestry practices.
Then, in 2001, with the help of the Austrian government, Güssing installed the first utility-scale biomass gasification power plant in the world. The plant runs off of wood chips from the forest and waste wood from a wooden flooring company.
The plant uses steam to separate carbon and hydrogen, and then recombines the molecules to make a form of natural gas which fuels the city’s power plant. It produces on average 2 megawatts of electricity and 4.5 megawatts of heat, more than enough energy for the town’s needs, while only consuming one-third of the biomass that grows every year. The town also has a plant that converts rapeseed to biodiesel, which is carried by all the fueling stations in the district.
In 2007 Güssing was the first community in the European Union to cut carbon emissions by more than 90 percent, helping it attract a steady stream of scientists, politicians, and eco-tourists. One year later, Güssing built a research institute focusing on thermal and biological gasification and production of second-generation fuels. The little town has become a net energy producer—generating more energy from renewables than it uses.
Güssing now has 60 new companies, 1,500 new jobs, and annual revenues of $17 million due to energy sales, all resulting from the growth of the renewable energy sector. The downtown has been rebuilt and young people picture themselves staying there in the future Ms Stone reported.
Many towns in the United States could benefit by following Güssing’s example. There are dozens of struggling towns in Colorado and the western Unites States that are surrounded by forests decimated by beetles. All this dead wood could be fuel for a gasification plant. The towns that don’t have biomass probably have wind and certainly sun. They could form a utility, generate green electricity, and sell it to their neighbors. The Güssing model could work here as well if we only had the political will and ingenuity.
Towns could sell their excess power to fund the local government thus helping taxpayers. It could use the cheap clean energy as a perk to attract new businesses to locate in the town. This makes sense without counting the benefits are derived from reducing carbon. Local officials should look closely at this model, or their constituents should. If it works there, it can work here.