Rot­ting wood turn­ing Aus­tria’s poor­est town into green model

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

GUESS­ING: Broke, re­mote and de­prived of jobs-just 25 years ago, the border town of Guess­ing close to Hun­gary was one of the poor­est in Aus­tria, a for­got­ten fron­tier along the Iron Cur­tain trail. Yet to­day, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of 4,000 peo­ple has mor­phed into a global flag­ship model for green en­ergy, af­ter be­com­ing the first com­mu­nity in the Euro­pean Union to pro­duce all its heat and power from re­new­able sources back in 2001.

Lat­est fig­ures show the town is al­ready 80 per­cent car­bon neu­tral, a clear fron­trun­ner in the bloc’s race for re­duc­ing C02 emis­sions. “The whole world should be­come Guess­ing,” en­thused Aus­tria’s most fa­mous green ad­vo­cate, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, dur­ing a visit two years ago. In many ways, it all be­gan with a “pile of rot­ting wood”, said en­gi­neer Rein­hold Koch, one of the masterminds be­hind the dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion. While Guess­ing lacked a mo­tor­way and train lines, there was one thing it had in abun­dance: forests and there­fore tim­ber left­overs from log­ging com­pa­nies.

“A ma­jor rea­son why we were so poor in the early 1990s was be­cause we spent mil­lions on buy­ing for­eign fos­sil fu­els, while wood of­f­cuts were de­cay­ing on the ground,” Koch said in an in­ter­view ahead of crunch cli­mate change talks in Paris. “I re­al­ized that the so­lu­tion was right in front of our eyes. We could pro­duce our own en­ergy and thereby keep the money here.” This, Koch hoped, would also put an end to the mass ex­o­dus Guess­ing was fac­ing at the time. Some 70 per­cent of the re­gion’s 27,000 in­hab­i­tants were forced to com­mute to the cap­i­tal Vi­enna for work as a con­se­quence of hav­ing been cut off from in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment for sev­eral decades. “I wanted to stop Guess­ing from dy­ing,” said Koch, mat­ter-of­factly.

Dig­ging up the town

The en­gi­neer found a will­ing ear in Guess­ing’s then-mayor, Peter Vadasz, a con­ser­va­tive politi­cian known for his en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mit­ment. To­gether, the pair set about im­ple­ment­ing an am­bi­tious green tran­si­tion plan. Firstly, all pub­lic build­ings were ther­mally in­su­lated and stopped us­ing fos­sil fu­els-a move that would halve lo­cal gov­ern­ment spend­ing on en­ergy. Aus­tria’s EU ac­ces­sion in 1995 en­abled Guess­ing to ob­tain sub­si­dies and build a wood burn­ing heat­ing plant. This proved a cru­cial first step to­ward re­viv­ing the re­gion’s stag­nant econ­omy, as Guess­ing was sud­denly able to of­fer com­pa­nies at­trac­tive deals.

“By pro­duc­ing our own en­ergy, we de­cen­tral­ized power and brought it back to our re­gion,” said Vadasz. “My first ques­tion to po­ten­tial new busi­nesses was al­ways: ‘How many jobs can you cre­ate?’” But the switch also meant adapt­ing ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture and con­vinc­ing lo­cals to aban­don fos­sil fu­els. Au­thor­i­ties be­gan dig­ging up the town’s streets one by one. “If 50 per­cent liv­ing on a street wanted to join, we would lay the pipes in the re­main­ing homes too, in case they wanted to join later-and they even­tu­ally did,” re­called Vadasz. “Green en­ergy had a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket price and our best public­ity was word-of-mouth, neigh­bors telling other neigh­bors that they weren’t pay­ing more.”

From zero to hero

The real break­through, how­ever, came in 2001 when Guess­ing launched a pi­o­neer­ing biomass plant with the help of Vi­en­nese sci­en­tist Her­mann Hof­bauer. The ex­pert had cre­ated a sys­tem able to pro­duce power by turn­ing wood into a clean gas in­stead of burn­ing it, thereby strongly re­duc­ing CO2 emis­sions. The in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy would not only achieve Guess­ing’s dream of green au­tarky, but also pro­pelled it to global fame. “It can pro­duce clean en­ergy in any re­gion in the world, as long as it has nat­u­ral re­sources,” ex­plained Koch. To­day the gi­ant metal con­struc­tion, which also serves as a re­search fa­cil­ity, sup­plies nearly half of Guess­ing’s heat, with the rest pro­vided by other green sources.

Much of the biomass plant’s wood comes from Aus­tria’s two largest par­quet floor­ing firms which are among 50 new com­pa­nies to have set­tled in Guess­ing in re­cent years­de­spite there still not be­ing a mo­tor­way or train lines. The suc­cess story also had a knockon ef­fect, with some 20 power plants now pro­duc­ing re­new­able en­ergy for the en­tire re­gion. “Ex­perts call Guess­ing the mecca of re­new­able en­ergy and say you have to make the pil­grim­age at least once in your life­time to see for your­self that this kind of thing is pos­si­ble,” said Koch, smil­ing. —AFP

GUESS­ING: Bern­hard Deutsch, the mayor of nearby Strem, pumps a green fuel at the Guess­ing En­ergy Tech­nolo­gies re­search cen­tre at Aus­trian town of Guess­ing. —AFP

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