Eco-village Knezice leads the way to zero emissions

Welcome to Knezice, a village of about 500 inhabitants in central Bohemia. It's the very definition of a rural Czech community, with its baroque church, low-slung 19th century farm buildings, and a few ponds with ducks. In some places, the smell of coal or burning wood hangs in the air. Many homes in this region were never hooked up to gas heat.

And that's one reason I've come here. Knezice recently embarked on an experiment that makes this ordinary village one of the most remarkable communities in the Czech Republic. The town has decided to try to become energy independent, and I've come to see exactly how that works.

I'm guided around town by Knezice's bicycle-riding mayor, Milan Kazda.

"The basic idea was this - we wanted to be self-sufficient. A return to our roots, really. People here always did stuff for themselves. They had horses, cows, pigs....We practically only started using coal maybe 50 years ago, and we used a very small amount. Back then, villagers hardly needed electricity - just for a radio and two light bulbs. So we thought we'd try being self-sufficient ourselves."

We arrive at Knezice's biomass station, on the north end of town. It's a cluster of gleaming white aluminum-sided buildings. This complex cost 116 million crowns and was built by the Skanska company, with funds from the European Union, regional government, and the town of Knezice itself.

"This building here is the lower installation, our biomass furnace. On the right, you can see a pile of woodchips, one of the ingredients of biomass, and then on the left there are bales of hay. Some of it we prepare ourselves, but mostly it comes from nearby farmers, and we're happy to support them. Let's have a look inside the furnace. It's about to get really loud!"

We enter the hollow shell of the plant, and are confronted by a bewildering tangle of machinery and piping.

"Here the guys are fixing the conveyor belt, which is always getting stuck with wood chips...Here's the hay furnace, and there's the furnace for wood chips. This device mixes it all up, ferments it, and then warm water is conducted to the community. Right now the water being sent out is about 50 degrees, and it comes back 40 degrees. Not so hot actually, because the furnace isn't on at the moment."

One of the advantages of biomass technology is that it produces warm water as a byproduct. Many houses in Knezice already get their heating that way. Also, the process creates little or no new greenhouse gases, since the carbon released by burning plant matter like hay and tree bark was itself only recently captured from the atmosphere by those same organisms.

As we walk to the biofuel station, where septic waste and restaurant leftovers are turned into liquid gas, Mayor Kazda runs through some of the numbers with me.

"The power we create should just about meet the needs of our community. We have 148 sites connected. Since December, 94 percent of residents who live here all year round have been connected, as well as 16 seasonal cottages. Gradually more people have been signing up, so while not everyone is connected yet, they all have contracts and eventually everyone will be connected."

The mayor is showing me how the stuff is mixed. It looks like mud and smells much much worse!

"The stink here is quite something, but that stench is what runs our motor! ...This releases the pump into the fermenter where it is mixed at a temperature of 40 degrees, freeing up the biofuel. From there it goes to the motor where it is basically used instead of petrol. The remaining waste can be used as liquid fertilizer in the fields."

Mayor Kazda says that funny smells aside, he's happy with the project so far. More than 50 visitors, including scientists, journalists, and the mayors of other towns, have come to have a look. He's gotten comfortable acting as a tour guide, but warns anyone who's thinking of installing their own biomass plant that it causes plenty of headaches.

"Of course we've had our share of problems with the plant. The furnace is a prototype and is always getting jammed. A lot of our machinery is like that, in fact. The problems have been bigger than expected, but they're gradually being solved. We're only at the know a colleague of mine said this was the biggest event in Knezice since the church was built."

Given that that the church of St. Peter and Paul was founded in 1359, that's no small matter. Despite being a flyspeck on a map, Knezice has a rich history as a valuable plaything that got passed back and forth between the feuding local gentry over the centuries.

Today Knezice isn't doing so badly. It's experienced modest population growth over the last several years, and the 500 inhabitants manage to support an elementary school, a grocery store, an auto repair shop, and one tavern.

I asked Josef Jansta, the owner of Hostinec na Krizovce, or the pub at the crossing, what life is like here.

"There's a lot of good neighborliness between people here. People don't envy one another and aren't watching what their neighbor has on his plate. Sure, there are some family clans here, but we pretty much all try to help each other. Today there are only a few private farmers left in Knezice, and almost everyone drives somewhere else to work. It's a town that sleeps in the day, and at night begins to live again."

Local traditions, like the Maj, or maypole celebration, have disappeared as the town turned into a bedroom community. And as for biomass, well, Josef Jansta says he's for it. But he hasn't managed to switch over the pub just yet.

"I heat the pub with wood, it's what we've always done since 1920. Back then there weren't really any particular rules for making heat..."

Today, the inhabitants of Knezice are trying to completely rewrite the rulebook on heating and electricity, and a lot of people are watching to see how things turn out.