The Model Region of Güssing – an Example of the Austrian Grassroots Strategy for Energy Independence

By Hans Kordik, Counselor for Agriculture and Environment, Austrian Embassy

The call for energy independence has been on the political agenda across the globe for many decades. While most countries share a growing energy demand, their reasons for looking to reduce energy dependency as well as their chosen strategies vary significantly.

In the U.S., the desire for energy independence had already emerged during the oil embargo of the early 70’s. Most of the State of the Union addresses since have elaborated on this objective. Just in the last Congress, the advocates of climate legislation defended their proposals not so much as mitigating emissions, but rather as finding a solution to the challenge of energy dependency. Even though all sides talk of energy independence as a worthy goal, since the early 70’s, the share of imported oil has nearly doubled in the United States.

Just like the U.S., Austria depends on energy imports in the form of fossil energy, primarily oil and natural gas. But Austria has been working hard to reduce its dependency. Nowhere is this effort, and its benefits, more evident than in the region of Güssing,

Today, Austria is one of only four European countries that derive more than 30% of their total energy consumption from renewable energy sources excluding nuclear energy which is not considered a renewable energy source. In a 1978 referendum, the Austrian people rejected the construction of nuclear plants in our country, and a few weeks later the parliament unanimously passed a law prohibiting the use of nuclear power for the production of electricity. Instead, measures to promote energy efficiency have been at the top of the agenda for decades. Austria enjoys the world’s highest per-capita share of so called “Passive Houses” – low-energy homes and buildings that require less than 10% of the energy needed for the average U.S. home.

In December 2008, under the initiative of Niki Berlakovich, the Federal Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, Austria announced its goal of becoming energy independent by 2050. The “Land of Mountains,” as it is called in the national anthem, has realized that skyscrapers are not built from the sky down, but from the bottom-up. Therefore Austria is pursuing energy independence on a regional level.

The most impressive example of energy independence on a regional level in Austria is the region of Güssing, a municipality of around 27,000 inhabitants close to the Hungarian border. During the Cold War it was located alongside the Iron Curtain for 50 years. In 1988, Güssing was one of the poorest regions of Austria. More than 70% of its workforce commuted to other regions. Entirely dependent on fossil energy for electricity, heating, and transportation, Güssing’s annual energy expenditure hovered around $9 million.

It was in 1990 that the Mayor of Güssing, Peter Vadasz, recognized the potential of changing Güssing’s energy consumption for improving its devastating economic conditions. He focused on improving the energy efficiency of the region, and using existing resources such as woody-biomass and municipal solid waste that contains organic combustible material, to transform his municipality to the first and biggest energy model for energy independence in the world.

Within eleven years, Güssing became self-sufficient with regards to electricity, heating, and transportation. In addition, more than 60 new companies and over 1,500 new “Green Jobs” were created and the share of commuters to other regions fell to 40%. Since Güssing generates more “green” energy than the regions needs, the value added to the region is over $28 million per year. Finally, greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by over 80%.

Numerous other regions in Austria have followed Güssing’s example in the last ten years, energy independent regions are growing like mushrooms in Austria, demonstrating that this grassroots strategy has been the key to success. From Tyrol to Lower Austria, and from Salzburg to Styria, more than 15 regions are now energy independent with regard to electricity, heating and/or transportation. In addition, 66 regions of Austria are taking action to become energy independent in the future, which means that 1.7 million inhabitants (21% of Austria’s population) will be able to consider themselves energy independent. Güssing has not only been a model for other regions in Austria, but is gaining popularity around the globe as a prime example of energy independence.

This is the inaugural post in a new series highlighting success stories from around the world in transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

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