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What Germany can teach Americans about transforming our energy systems

german solar panel structures
Photos by Osha Gray Davidson for InsideClimate News
Germany now has nearly one-third of the world’s installed solar capacity even though it lies across latitudes giving it a level of sunniness similar to Alaska’s.

Imagine a Minnesota where 25 percent of the electricity flowing to your home or business comes from the sun and the wind and maybe a few small hydroelectric plants, with that percentage rising steadily year after year.

Where you make your own power with solar panels or wind turbines, which have become affordable in part because you can sell any excess electricity to your neighbors at a guaranteed premium price. Or, if you’re the type who prefers to just buy your kilowatt hours, imagine you can choose among dozens of electric companies – many of them local, some of them owned by you and your friends in a shareholder system.

Gasoline costs more in this Minnesota – a lot more – so you use the car more sparingly, for vacations and special occasions. But you live within a half-mile of a public transit system that enables you to ride all day for less than a gallon of gas costs, in whatever combination of buses, streetcars and commuter trains you prefer.

Giving up coal AND nukes

Now imagine that across your region – across your nation – coal-burning power plants are being retired faster than they’re being born. 

And the question of whether to build new nuclear power plants, with all their outsized risks and costs, has been answered in Washington with a permanent “No.” New nukes have become unnecessary, thanks to the evolving energy system around you.

And you probably pay a bit less for electricity than you would if things had stayed the way they are right now.

What we can learn from Germany

I have extracted this futuristic vision from a noteworthy new book which isn’t futuristic in the least. Rather, “Clean Break” is a factual and, I think, fair-minded examination of how, over the last 12 years, Germany has made all the elements of my imaginary Minnesota into current realities for its citizens. More hopefully, it offers Americans a chance to learn from that example.

Commissioned by InsideClimate News, the book is being serialized this week, and is also available for 99 cents as a Kindle Single.

The writer is Osha Gray Davidson, a longtime journalist and author with a special interest these days in renewable energy and clean technology. His credentials are good and also varied; he has written for Forbes as well as Mother Jones, the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

You may know of his website, The Phoenix Sun, which I am both obliged and pleased to say was among my inspirations a few years ago in creating Midwest Energy News hereabouts.

In “Clean Break,” Davidson has taken up the task of explaining the revolutionary shift in energy policy, technology and culture that the Germans call the Energiewende:

The word translates simply as, "energy change." But there's nothing simple about the Energiewende. It calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and embraces clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The government has set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but many Germans I spoke with in three weeks traveling across this country believe 100 percent renewable power is achievable by then.

For comparison, Minnesota policy calls for 27.5 percent renewable energy by 2025, which is considered ambitious by American standards; Michigan just voted down a constitutional amendment to raise its renewables standard to 25 percent by 2025. Nationwide, renewables contribute about 12 percent of American power today if you count large hydroelectric plants, only 6 percent if you don't.

Part policy, part travelogue

While this is a book about policy from top to bottom, it often reads more like a travel book, a journal of discovery through a modernizing nation whose rapid progress was at times as startling to the author as it will be to you. (He made me laugh in recounting how the sight of solar-roofed barns and outbuildings all across German farm fields made him wonder if he was being shown some kind of green Potemkin village.

And he avoids omniscience in favor of ample quotation of experts both in Germany and back in the U.S., including John Farrell at the Minneapolis office of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Farrell is an expert on “distributed generation,” or the making of electricity in many small, scattered stations rather than a few huge, centralized ones. This can raise efficiency while lowering cost, but most important to Farrell is that it “democratizes” energy production and therefore energy policy.

And this may well be the most significant difference between Germany’s system and ours today, the single biggest driver of Germany’s rapid advance. Farrell told Davidson that he likens distributed generation to the personal computer as an engine of sweeping change:

“We went from supercomputers in a basement somewhere to desktops and the Internet. The result is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts…. There’s money to be made from generating electricity. Everyone should have a chance to reap those economic benefits.”

From four producers to 800

Embracing distributed generation moved German electric production from four big utilities in the year 2000, when legislation launching the Energiewende was enacted, to more than 800 mostly small producers today.

Germany now has nearly one-third of the world’s installed solar capacity even though, as Davidson observes, it lies across latitudes giving it a level of sunniness similar to Alaska’s (most of it lies north of Bemidji, for that matter). On average, electric bills are slightly lower than here, $108 compared to $110, with the renewable “premium” contributing about 11 percent.

Challenges remain. As electric demand rises and distribution disperses, the Germans need to build a lot of new transmission lines (so do we). It needs to find better ways of storing sun and wind power between the time it’s generated and the time it’s used (so do we). It needs to build more natural-gas-powered “peaking” plants to cover periods of highest demand (so do we). It needs to figure out interconnections with a complicated European grid beyond its borders (the one problem we don’t share).

But throughout the book, Davidson’s hosts refer to these challenges as the inevitable tasks of an important and worthy transition, a path to a system that is not just a set of substitutes but immeasurably better. To my ear that distinguishes them from America’s advocates of business-as-usual, who never seem to tire of explaining to us that renewables can’t be a significant source of power, that we can’t avoid building a new fleet of nuke plants, that the path ahead is so difficult it’s just too daunting to start. ...

So the Germans’ just-do-it attitude may be another key reason that their nation, so comparable to ours in living standard, industrial base, economic system and culture, has raced so far ahead in making the changes all Americans realize, in our heart of hearts, are ultimately inevitable. But I’ll highlight just one more: The Germans haven’t wasted political energy on one particularly pointless argument. As Davidson writes:

Such a massive power shift may sound impossible to those of us from the United States, where giant oil and coal corporations control the energy industry and the very idea of human-caused climate change is still hotly contested. Here in Germany, that debate is long over. A dozen years of growing public support have driven all major political parties to endorse the Energiewende. If a member of parliament called climate change a hoax or said that its cause is unknown, he or she would be laughed out of office.

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Comments (5)

Germany and the solar power scam

Germany is the poster country for PV solar, and it has some of the highest electric rates in Europe.
This is compounded for customers as four major German utilities and the Federal Network Agency have announced that they are raising the surcharge that customers pay on their utility bills to fund renewable energy by a steep 47% next year, from € 3.592 c/kWh now to 5.277 c/kWh.  This is to cover the increasing proportion from renewables and the fact that the utilities are obliged to pay for each high cost renewable kwh much more than they can sell it for.  Utilities charge most customers the renewable energy sources (EEG) surcharge or "Umlage" to cover the difference.
Germany's solar program is costing taxpayers and rate payers more than $10 billion a year in subsidies. Germany gets about 3-4% of its electric power from solar. In the U.S. in 2011 solar provided one tenth of 1% of our electric demand.
Jurgen Grossmann, the CEO of the Germany's largest utility RWE, recently said the subsidization of solar energy in Germany was as useful as "growing pineapples in Alaska.'"
The US Energy Information Administration recently studied the total cost of various fuels for electric power. Solar comes in at the top with off shore wind at 22 cents/kwh. That's 3 times natural gas and about twice nuclear.

Almost all studies on costs don't include externalities...

....so any comparison is apples to oranges unless you do. The list is long, and the costs huge for fossil-fuel based electricity, even before factoring in the costs associated with global warming.

Currently, air pollution from combustion sources causes an estimated 23,000 premature deaths each year, 1.7 million asthma episodes, and 22,000 respiratory related hospital visits annually, all with substantial direct an indirect costs not paid by the electricity producer or consumer. Most of this is due to particulate matter, and scrubable constituents, but upgrading dirtier plants will raise the cost of fossil fuel-derived electricity. Coal is particularly dirty, in addition injecting mercury, cadmium, nickel, and radon, of which we're particularly sensitive to here with our poorly buffered lakes. There are large additional costs, e.g., the 2008 TVA coal-ash spill cost $825 million to clean up, with about 1/3rd not covered by the energy producers, and "small" pipeline failures and other oil spills are common, with costs in the tens of millions to local and state governments. Atmospheric deposition of PAHs derived from combustion are perhaps a third of total inputs, with aggregate storm-sewer cleanup costs in the tens of billions annually across the country. These aren't factored into the cost per kW-hr for grid electricity, but they are real costs, and the public in general pays.

Even the relatively clean source, natural gas, emits carbon dioxide, causing global warming. Damage from Katrina was $85 billion, the fires in the West this year had aggregate prevention and loss costs in the tens of billions, again paid for by local municipalities through state and federal governments. They as well as individuals pay for the more frequent, intense, advective storms like those that clobbered Duluth this year, costing in excess of $100 million, and repeated across the country.

Clearly, it is difficult to ascribe a global-warming related cost to any one storm, just as it is difficult to ascribe the likelihood that any one homer hit by Barry Bonds was due to steroids. But just as sure as we are that steriods changed the outcome, so does carbon dioxide injections into the atmosphere, even from relatively "clean" sources such as natural gas.

One fair way to compare apples to apples would be to cost the systems after requiring similar amounts of emissions - in effect including complete scrubbing and disposal costs of all combustion source, which also includes complete carbon capture and long-term fixation, or offsets. Because we're going to pay for the carbon emissions sooner or later, through increased loss of life, illness, fishless lakes, increased damage to infrastructure, and the inundation of coastal cities, these costs should be born by the electricity consumers as directly as possible.

Once you factor in these costs, 20 cents a kw-hr may be cheap.

Putting a number on pollution

There is no argument about the serious environmental impact of coal burning, and the need to reduce or end it. Coal is dropping rapidly from 50% of our electric fuel to the mid 30s today. It's being replaced by NG which avoids the mercury, sulfur, soot, etc. CO2 emissions are cut in half, but there is no practical method for carbon capture.
Katrina was bad, but Camille was stronger before the current atmosphere temperature rise began. Carbon emissions are a long term problem, and the only practical answer to replacing base load fossil fuel is no carbon nuclear. And it is cheaper than 22 cents/kwh.
I'll be doing a class in spring quarter on our energy future. Your attendance and input are welcome.

global warming

Global warming is indeed a major looming threat. Unfortunately, grid connected solar and wind won't help. Solar is useful in areas where is no grid and plenty of sun. Large areas in Africa for example. To my knowledge, there is no place on earth where erratic solar or wind have replaced a conventional fossil fuel power plant. They are simply not effective as significant sources to a delicately balanced grid. They also require natural gas or hydro plants to run in inefficient start stop mode as backup, generating more GHGs than they save.

It's a little early to call Germany a success

Germany's dedication to putting in solar panels and windmills certainly impresses. But I wouldn't call Germany's experiment a success just yet.

Putting electrical power on the grid is not an easy task. When you have the supply of electrical power fluctuating as much as or more than the demand, you have not just a tricky task in balancing the grid and maintaining the purity of the power, but an almost impossible one. That's why Germany spends so much -- standby power must be instantly available all the time, and having that up and running wipes out all the savings from using the free fuel of wind and sunshine.

This article acknowledges that Germany still faces challenges. But I think the article downplays the seriousness of those challenges, and overestimates the odds that the challenges will be overcome. In my eyes, Germany has bet billions of euros on its poker hand and is now drawing three cards to try to fill an inside straight. If Germany wins, it wins big. But if it loses, it loses big. I think the odds are not in Germany's favor.