Citizens in Berlin are fighting to democratize and decentralize the city's energy system, and they've found an unlikely model—in Sacramento, Calif.

By Joel Stonington

BERLIN, Germany—A decision 90 years ago by the people of Sacramento, Calif. to oust a private electric company and start a government-owned utility has been the unlikely inspiration for Berliners trying to wrest control of Germany's largest grid from a coal-fired utility.

While little known in America, the creation of Sacramento's Municipal Utility District was the model for a November referendum to give Berlin a municipal utility that would pump more clean energy into the grid. The 1923 vote in Sacramento helped the California city build a rare, green record—constructing the nation's first big solar plant, voting to shut down a nuclear reactor and approving a goal of slashing climate-changing emissions by 90 percent by 2050.

"Sacramento stopped nuclear with direct elections," said Stefan Taschner, spokesperson for Energietisch, the group behind the push to take over Berlin's grid. It provides the "best example of democratic control."

Berlin's referendum failed by a tiny margin—but it's not the end of the story. The contract to operate the grid expires at the end of next year, and the near-approval sent a strong message to the mayor and other officials that the city should buy the contract. The referendum needed 25 percent of Berlin's 2.5 million registered voters to pass; it missed that mark by less than 1 percent.


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