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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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But Germany is way ahead in other ways including their export economy, and not just the solar panels which have been a problem in trying to keep up with China on that now. China’s manufacturing plants that make solar panels — those were bought from Germany — the plants themselves, all of that technology came from Germany. So they’re still reaping rewards.

And the extra cost that they’re paying, you have to look at where it is going and mostly it is to citizens of Germany — it’s creating jobs, over 300,000 jobs in renewable energy there. So the costs were higher but the money stayed within Germany and stayed within small towns. It’s being spent wisely and it’s helping the German economy. It’s not just a cost, it’s also a benefit.

TL: What did you think of their use of biomass? I know that can be a mixed bag when it comes to environmental impacts.

OGD: Yes, and there is debate on it in Germany. It is like most other forms of energy in that you can do it wrong or you can do it right. One big objection is using corn — growing corn, a food crop, and then burning it, using it for energy production. It drives up food costs and it’s probably not a good use of land. So that’s one example of using biomass in an unsustainable fashion. 

But I saw some biomass projects that were using sustainably harvested wood from woodlots and just trimmings. I watched them trimming trees on the side of the road and the wood chips would be taken by this farmer to a community heating unit in this tiny town in the Black Forest, St. Peter, where they have this community heating project using sustainably harvested wood chips to heat over 200 houses and businesses and they’re cutting back on C02 emissions because it’s replacing oil burning furnaces. And it’s a cooperative, so all of the people who live there — the 200 homes — not only is the heat cheaper but they get any financial returns.

So biomass can be done in a sustainable way or it can not be.

TL: Was it frustrating at all for you to see all this progress in Germany and to think about where the conversation is at right now in the U.S. — where we barely speak about climate change and if we do we still have people insisting that we debate its existence?

OGD: I went back and forth on this when I was in Germany. I’d see all of this stuff — in Hamburg, the public transportation system, the whole built environment, which is a big part of the energy change. Ninety-nine percent of residents in Hamburg live within 300 meters of public transport. Germans own cars to a far lesser extent because they have such a great transportation system. The built environment is created for mass transportation and bikes and walking.

And yes, I was alternately frustrated that we didn’t have that and hopeful because I saw what was possible. In the States a lot of the discussion is about theory — what can we get — but it doesn’t have to be a theoretical conversation and that was what I took away from Germany. They are actually doing it and I do think that if they can do that then yes, we can do that here.

The main driver in Germany was citizens' groups who wanted out of nuclear power, that was one of the very first issues. Ursula Sladek was a school teacher and her husband was a village doctor when Chernobyl blew and all the radioactive fallout fell on their area, they were in one of the most heavily contaminated areas. Ursula didn’t want to be part of a nuclear society anymore and went to the utility which was a monopoly back then and said "we don’t want you to use nuclear anymore" — she had gotten a group of friends and neighbors together. And the utility said, "ha, we don’t care what you want."

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