Feldheim: A hamlet swept by the winds of change

Does the German village hold the key to a nuclear-free future? Tony Paterson reports from a backwater at the heart of a global debate

The burghers of Home Counties Britain would be horrified at the prospect of one of their villages being turned into a Feldheim. The tiny east German hamlet lies in the gently rolling countryside of Brandenburg, south-west of Berlin. It is a landscape of vast fields and thick pine forests, dotted with ancient 13th-century stone churches.

But Feldheim is out of step with its idyllic rural surroundings. Viewed from a distance the village of 37 houses resembles a set from the film version of the H G Wells sci-fi novel War of the Worlds. For around it are 43 giant wind turbines, many of them towering 300 feet above the ground.

The view down Feldheim's largely deserted main street is of whirling turbines. When the wind blows strongly from the east, the residents can hear the whooshing sound of 129 blades cutting through the air. Aesthetically displeasing it might be, but Feldheim, the first community in Germany to meet all its energy needs renewably, is the shape of things to come.

The village has been thrust into the limelight since Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy U-turn last year, when she ended Germany's reliance on atomic power. The move was a response to public anxiety about nuclear energy that reached fever pitch during the crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant last year, when sales of personal Geiger counters rocketed in Germany.

The Merkel government now wants to shut down all the country's nuclear power plants by 2022 and, by 2020, to have increased its renewable energy output from current levels of around 20 per cent to 35 per cent.

Feldheim has become a mecca for European mayors and town planners keen to develop their own green technologies. And, since Fukushima, it has also pulled in planners, investors and environment correspondents from Japan. The hamlet has a resident population of only 148 people, but it attracted 3,000 visitors last year alone and more than half of them came from Japan. "Even more than the Germans, we are frantically searching for alternatives to nuclear power," said Keiko Iizuka, a Japanese journalist who was visiting Feldheim last week.

"People are here almost every day," said Michael Knape, the mayor. "At first we didn't know where it would go or how we would do it, but we knew it was important to move in this direction."

The hamlet's transformation from a dilapidated rural backwater into a model renewable energy village began in the mid-1990s, when Germany's big energy companies began using the former communist east to carry out a massive wind-energy expansion programme. Compared with their conservation-minded west-German counterparts, the newly liberated easterners were seen as soft targets who would more readily accept wind turbines. Villagers were reportedly offered incentives ranging from cash donations to new sewage plants to persuade them to accept turbines on their land. As a result eastern Germany now has one of the highest concentrations of wind farms in the world.

In 1994 Michael Raschermann, a young renewable-energy entrepreneur, looked at Feldheim's exposed location on a plateau and decided it would be an ideal spot to install a wind turbine. Dozens more followed, as the villagers found that they could earn cash by renting their land to energy companies for use as turbine plots. Four years ago, with the help of European Union start-up funding, the village followed up with a €1.7m (£1.4m) biogas heat plant powered by slurry made from corn and manure obtained from its 700-sow pig farm and 1,700 acres of arable farmland. To make up for possible energy shortfalls caused by fluctuations in wind power and biogas supplies during cold weather, the village also installed a wood chip furnace fuelled from the remains of trees felled in the surrounding forests.

By now Feldheim was already producing all its energy renewably. Its next step was to free itself from the shackles of big power companies such as E.on to whose energy grid the village was linked. E.on refused to sell or lease the part of the grid the village was using. So Feldheim combined with the German renewable energy company Energiequelle to build its own grid, which it completed in October 2010. The project cost each villager €3,000, but now they pay 31 per cent less than the standard rate for their electricity and around 10 per cent less for their heating. The project has also created about 30 jobs. None of the villagers complain that the turbines are an eyesore.

"Before the Berlin Wall fell most of the people who lived here worked on a communist collective farm – they have a very practical attitude towards their environment," Energiequelle's Werner Frohwitter told The Independent.

Yet Feldeim's citizens are not relishing the prospect of attracting even more media attention. "To be honest they are fed up with journalists and visitors," said Mr Frohwitter.

Indeed, 20 years after the fall of the Wall, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Stasi is still alive and well in Feldheim. There is the occasional flick of curtains at windows overlooking its mostly deserted streets. The villagers avert their gaze or back away when approached by visitors.

One farmer shifting sacks of pig fodder eventually agreed to exchange a few words but refused to give his name: "The wind turbines are no trouble; we hardly notice them. You think differently when they bring in cash," he said. "But we hate the publicity. It's like living in a goldfish bowl."