Germany’s most beautiful islands, part 9: Pellworm An island bursting with energy
Seen from the mainland, Pellworm consists of a red and white lighthouse, a few dark green knobs in front of a light blue sky, and wind turbines whose rotors turn busily in the brisk wind. The dark green knobs, once on the island, turn out to be an unspectacular collection of trees. The lighthouse and wind turbines are the potential of the island.
The 42 meter high building shows seafarers the way through the mudflats and those who want to get married can be married by Captain Wilfried Eberhard. If it were only islanders, the captain would rarely have to climb the 167 steps. The bachelors and bachelorettes of marriageable age among the 1200 residents would be quickly married off. Pellworm has become a pilgrimage site for marriages. There are a dozen ways to say "I do" on the island: on the seal banks, on a mudflat hike, at night under a starry sky, with an esoteric touch – and on the lighthouse.
Few guests, much contact
But you don’t have to get married or be part of a wedding party to go to Pellworm. 180.000 overnight stays the island has per year. Significantly less than Amrum, which is only half the size of the island. The neighbors come to more than one million – at 12.000 guest beds. There are just 2000 beds on Pellworm, which covers 37 square kilometers. Is it on the sandy beach? Pellworm has none, only mudflats or water behind the dike, depending on the tides. Even when the island is fully booked, contact between locals and strangers is possible, almost inevitable. "Here everything is cooked on a low flame", says Walter Fohrbeck – in both a positive and negative sense.
When museum and archive director Walter Fohrbeck drives his black Fiat Cinquicento along the narrow island roads, he rarely has both hands on the wheel. The index and middle fingers of one hand rise every few meters, greet. Everybody knows everybody. The typical island greeting "Moin" is not called short and snappy, but stretched long. One has time and leisure. Fohrbeck is a native Rhinelander. He came to the island 19 years ago. An island museum should be built. The 53-year-old with the frizzy, grayish hair became the personified chronicle of the island. But he also cares about the present, organizes organ concerts in the old church with the Arp Schnitger instrument, and he looks progressively into the future. He participated for years in many energy concepts and discussions.
Currently, the second distinctive feature of the island – the windmills – is up for debate. Let the rotors continue to whirr quietly on the island? "They are through", says Fohrbeck. The youngest wind turbines have been on Pellworm since 1997, long since outdated, long since no longer efficient enough. Nevertheless, the island produces twice as much energy as it consumes.
Coincidentally 100 percent eco
In terms of energy, the island could live self-sufficiently – and 100 percent eco. Pellworm is probably one of the few communities that is politically conservative, but progressive in its energy policy – and has been for decades. Sounds logical, after all Pellworm lies one meter below sea level and should feel particularly threatened by the rising water level. After a devastating storm surge in 1634, the island of Strand sank; Pellworm, part of the old island, was diked again. To this day, the dikes are raised regularly, and many houses stand on terps, small hills with a drainage system to allow the water to run off. "Imagine Pellworm like a salad bowl. No more water comes out here on its own", says Fohrbeck.
However, the beginning of the regenerative energy age on the island was not a conscious political decision. It happened rather. When, after the oil crises of the 1970s, people became aware of the finite nature of oil resources, companies began their first experiments with alternative energies, looking for places with space and many hours of sunshine. Pellworm was chosen. In 1983, the first solar modules were installed on the island. The technology was anything but mature, bit by bit the experiment behind the dike was extended. When a windmill was also turning, one of the largest hybrid power plants in Europe was located on one of the smallest islands. A clever combination, because when there is a lull, the sun usually shines. If the sky is overcast, the wind blows freshly.
Where to put the energy?
Sheep graze between the Pellworm collectors, bleat. The windmill turns whirring. Wind turbines are no longer unusual on the coast. Between 600 and 800 exist, new wind farms are to be built in the North Sea. Not however on the islands. Yet Pellworm could have been producing more electricity for years now. The resources – wind and sun – are there. A biogas plant will soon be converted from corn to grass. Only the transport of the generated energy is difficult. "There are two cables to the mainland, which are used to maximum capacity", says Fohrbeck. Renewable energy is only worthwhile because it is heavily subsidized and the big power companies are obliged to buy it. Another cable would have to be laid by the electricity company Eon at its own expense, putting itself under obligation to buy even more expensive green electricity.
Tourism with sheep factor
The island’s energy project, which is actually so advanced, is meandering along. The same goes for the tourism industry, which has become as important as agriculture. Holidaymakers hardly feel the effects of a tourism concept. Well, there is the comic sheep Pelle, which grazes on brochures, key rings and umbrella caps and the indoor swimming pool heated by the biogas plant the name "Pellewelle" has given.
There are tourist lone fighters who show initiative and make a difference. There are houses like the Friesenhaus, one of the few hotels on the island. "We were the first house to be certified", says Ute Lycke. In the past, people bought new living room furniture; the old one was still good enough for vacationers. Meanwhile, some vacation rentals advertise five-star comfort. 70 percent of the accommodations are vacation homes. 40 percent are regular guests, seniors, grandparents with their grandchildren, young families, always down-to-earth, without excessive demands. But the coast of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has been upgraded, and even on the neighboring islands of North Frisia, something has happened. Now they are considering whether an artificial sandy beach would improve the situation.
In search of concepts
"We don’t need a new beach. We need new guests", says Ute Lycke, the Friesenhaus owner, resolutely. Five years ago, she and her New Zealand husband Grant Smith bought and renovated the run-down house on the Kay dike. They now have 25 rooms and vacation apartments in a neighboring house, directly under the lighthouse. "Our guest numbers are rising continuously", so Lycke. The island does not have to reinvent itself for this. Green meadows on, in front of and behind the dike, a small harbor, narrow, flat roads as if made for bicycle and inline skating tours, two churches. If you are looking for tranquillity, you will find it on Pellworm.
While in tourism it’s still every man for himself, in energy matters everyone is currently sitting at the same table, for the first time in two decades. The operating company of the wind farms, the big energy supplier, the politicians, the farmers. There are contacts and networks to other islands, to the neighbor Fohr and Amrum, as well as to the Danish island Samsø and to distant islets in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. One wants to win awards and prizes and discovers that the eco-seal is silverable. For centuries, the islanders have braved the forces of nature to create their own living space. Now they could even make a profit.