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What Germany can teach Americans about transforming our energy systems

The official target is 80 percent renewables by 2050, but many Germans think 100 percent is within reach.

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.
Photos by Osha Gray Davidson for InsideClimate News

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.