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While Germany Is Headed for 80% Renewable Energy, We're Getting Left in the Dust

Osha Gray Davidson discusses his new book "Clean Break," about the keys to Germany's success with renewables and why the U.S. is getting its butt kicked.

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TL: Do you think it’s possible in the United States, considering the strength of our energy lobby, to move toward more sources of distributed power?

OGD: I do, and it’s because when you talk to people in Germany and read about the history of this you realize the problems were not the same but were equivalent — people said "you’re crazy, you’re not going to achieve any of these goals." But this was really a bottom-up movement that forced politicians to get behind it, politicians from across the spectrum. So the center-right governing party now, Angel Merkel’s party, they are for the Energiewende. They are not doing it very effectively, they’re mismanaging it. But it’s fascinating, I just got used to in the United States if you see someone who has solar or wind you generally know politically where they’re going to be on the spectrum in the United States. In Germany you have absolutely no idea from someone’s involvement in renewable energy, where they are on the political spectrum.

TL: And they are making all these leaps with renewable energy while at the same time shutting down their nuclear facilities.

OGD: The whole anti-nuclear aspect is a big one in Germany because like Japan, they lived through a nuclear crisis with Chernobyl in 1986. In Germany there are still parts where you can’t harvest mushrooms because of the radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. 

It was a big deal in Germany. The kids had to stay inside for days at a time and they didn’t know what was going to happen. As it turned out, the radioactivity was less in Germany than it was in some of the Scandinavian countries because of the wind patterns. And German farmers remember having to destroy a lot of crops because of contamination. So for them, moving to renewables made sense just as farmers wanting to protect their land and their crops and their way of life.

TL: What was the pushback in Germany when decisions were made to shut down the nuclear plants?

OGD: A little after 2000 there was an amendment to the Renewable Energy Act that was worked out in agreement with the nuclear power plant owners to phase out nuclear. It was going to be done in an orderly way that they could count on as these plants aged they would have to shut them down anyway. They were part of that — they weren’t just forced out until the Merkel government came in. This is what I mean by the mismanagement of it.

Her government extended the licenses of nuclear plants and there were huge demonstrations throughout Germany against that and then six months or so later was when Fukushima happened and lo and behold Angela Merkel turned anti-nuclear. So she went from extending the licenses and abrogating that plan they had with nuclear power companies to then all of a sudden essentially closing them down.

That’s caused a lot of problems in Germany and I think the critics of closing them down immediately have a really good point that she took offline low-carbon energy producers that were going to be phased out anyway.

TL: I’m wondering about the kinds of infrastructure that needs to be built or upgraded when you’re talking about generating energy from renewables. You wrote in the book about how they need $25 billion more for new power lines — where does that money come from? Who’s footing the bill?

OGD: Well, that’s the question. They’re still debating that and there is no easy answer. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that this transition is an easy one and a cost-free one — it’s just that not doing anything is far costlier. As several people there have pointed out, everyone is going to move to a renewable energy economy eventually, because they’re dependent on non-renewable fuels. Germany has a headstart by doing it early, but there are costs related to doing it early. Germans were paying more to install solar panels at the very beginning before the price got cut by mass production.

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