Grid buy-back rejected in Berlin

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A referendum to put the German capital’s electricity grid back in the hands of municipal authority in an effort to use more renewable energy in the city failed to gain enough votes on Sunday.

The measure needed a quorum of 25% to pass but attracted only 24% of votes.

Supported by a grassroots initiative known as the Berliner Energietisch, the effort sought to buy back Berlin’s electricity grid from state-owned Swedish utility Vattenfall, the city’s current provider whose concession expires at the end of 2014.

A similar referendum in the northern city of Hamburg, where Vattenfall also holds a concession for the city grid through next year, won in September.

Supporters of the initiative have taken issue with what they see as Vattenfall’s over reliance on coal and not providing enough electricity from alternative sources.

With Berlin shouldering a debt load of more than €60 billion ($80 billion), the city’s government had opposed a takeover of the grid, saying the city could not afford the venture, which it has estimated as high as €3 billion – far higher than the approximately €400 million with which supporters of the campaign reckoned.

Energietisch had said it wanted the state government to retake the grid so that Berlin, and not "a Swedish nuclear and coal firm," would benefit from the profits generated by the city’s electricity service, which reached €150 million ($200 million) last year.

Berlin’s government had also described the referendum as unnecessary because it had recently approved legislation to establish a city-owned utility for renewables, which it says will seek the grid concession when it expires next year.

Energietisch’s initiators have said they’ll continue to pressure city leaders to do just that.

In the meantime, Vattenfall is reportedly pushing to expand lignite, or brown coal, mining operations in the Brandenburg region of Lausitz, where the company plays a major role in the area’s economy.