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


This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

When you think of places with great potential for solar energy, what comes to mind? Maybe the American Southwest, perhaps the Middle East. What probably doesn’t come to mind is Germany — and yet Germany is leading a global revolution in renewable energy, with solar playing a key part.

In the U.S., we now get 6 percent of our energy from renewables, which is exactly where Germany was in 2000. And then it passed the Renewable Energy Act and jumpstarted a movement known as Energiewende. Twelve years later, Germany gets over 25 percent of its energy from renewables and it is surpassing all of its benchmarks to be 80 percent renewable-powered by 2050. 

In his new book, Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It, Osha Gray Davidson explains how Germany made such a significant leap. Here are some shocking numbers he breaks down in the book:

25 percent of Germany’s electricity now comes from solar, wind and biomass. A third of the world’s installed solar capacity is found in Germany, a nation that gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. A whopping 65 percent of the country’s total renewable power capacity is now owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities, leaving Germany’s once all-powerful utilities with just a sliver (6.5 percent) of this burgeoning sector.

AlterNet interviewed Davidson about his new book, and got his take on whether or not the U.S. can catch up to the green energy revolution.

Tara Lohan: You went to Germany interested in its clean energy revolution. Despite the research you’d done, were you surprised by what you found there?

Osha Gray Davidson: No matter how much I read about it beforehand, it couldn’t prepare me for what I saw. I write in the book about traveling by train from Hamburg in the north down to Freiburg in the very south. It was something like a five-hour train ride but there wasn’t more than 15 minutes that went by without seeing either wind turbines on the hills or farm fields or solar panels on roofs of houses, barns, anything that had a south-facing roof. Even knowing how much energy they get — now it is 26 percent — from renewables, it doesn’t prepare you for what’s it’s like to live or visit a society that is moving in a big way to renewable energy.

TL: Does hitting their goal of 80 percent renewable power by 2050 seem realistic?

OGD: The reason it does seem realistic to me is they started out in the year 2000 with 6 percent renewable power and they’ve had a series of targets and so far they’ve been surpassing the targets. In the year 2020 their target was 30 percent, they are so far along now that they’ve moved that target to 35 percent. Everyone I’ve talked to there across the political spectrum says that 35 percent renewable energy by 2020 is completely doable.

When you look at how much money they’re putting into this and how it’s designed, and it’s not universal support, but there is overwhelming support for this transformation throughout Germany. Knowing all that, yes, I can see them getting to 80 percent by 2050.

TL: What has been the key to their success so far?

OGD: A couple of things. One, they made a decision to do this and I think when a government and a population make a decision to do something and it’s widespread that changes a whole lot because it’s always a matter of political will, not technological will, that makes the difference. The support is key and the way that they got that support is they designed policies that would give everybody — all residents of Germany — a way to have skin in the game. Sixty-five percent of all renewable energy in Germany is owned by individuals and cooperatives and groups of small investors. 

Germany gets unfairly tarred as doing this as a command-and-control program — the energy transformation — according to its critics, mostly in the United States, say it’s a socialist program, and nothing could be further from the truth. It is incredibly market-based, far more than our energy policies, to the extent that we actually have any.

Everybody in Germany has a chance to participate; they can become a utility essentially. If you want to put solar panels on your roof, or if you’re a renter and want to get together with a group of friends and invest in solar panels or a windmill or a windfarm or chuches ... I saw many churches in Germany covered in solar panels and found out they’ve lowered their electricity bills by a huge extent by taking part in this. Giving everyone the financial incentive in making this work is really key.

TL: It seems like such a big transformation in 12 years to go from big power corporations to so much smaller, more distributed, community-run energy sources.

OGD: Yeah and that is key, that it’s distributed rather than centralized. It’s disappointing in the United States that we don’t really have that conversation at all. It’s just assumed here that energy, whether it’s fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable, is going to be produced by a large utility. 

In Germany, the large utilities — the Big Four, they’re called — they have about 6 percent renewable energy capacity. But that is by design. When the Renewable Energy Act was written and then passed in 2000, one of the keys was understanding that you have to give everybody an incentive. Even though Germans, to a greater extent than Americans, know that global warming is a huge problem and that it needs to be solved, that isn’t enough to make an energy transformation.

A lot of people here who understand it and know that climate change is a problem can’t really do much about it because even if they put solar panels up — what is that going to do — it’s one tiny piece of something. In Germany they know that they’re plugging into a much larger movement that is going to have an effect and beside from that, you do get a financial benefit; you earn money by putting solar panels on the roof.

To install a similar sized array on a rooftop in Germany costs half as much as it does in the States even though the hardware costs are all the same. It’s the process of putting it up that’s much cheaper — the soft costs. And then you earn money. As opposed to here, where the best you can do with net metering is lower your utility bill to zero. But there, beyond that, you can actually make some coin off of it. Anybody can.

TL: It must help if you’re making investments of tens of thousands of dollars that the overall political will is there and it’s not going to shift every time there is an election.

OGD: Exactly. And that’s another part of the policy design from the Renewable Energy Act that you’re guaranteed a certain price for the power you produce for 20 years. So businesses, including individuals, know exactly how long it will take them to recoup the costs and start earning money on it — and how much they’ll make for the next 20 years. A lot of small businesses are doing this because there is policy certainty. In the U.S. we’ve just seen here with the Wind Production Tax Credit, the fact that it’s going to expire here on December 31st unless Congress extends it, wind manufacturers have already laid off several hundred people in the United States because of that policy uncertainty. 

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.

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."

From that, Ursula and this group in town now run the largest green cooperative in Germany and they have 180,000 households and business members of their little company in this tiny town in the Black Forest.

I always ask "What lessons can Americans learn?" And the overwhelming theme was, "just start going it, that’s what we did." And Ursula is such a great example of that. It took them 10 years in this David and Goliath battle with their utility. As she’s pointed out, “we didn’t shut down a single nuke plant, and that was all we were trying to do. But we’ve helped start a renewable energy revolution."

When I asked her about what we Americans could learn, she didn’t answer at first and she looked around at this office she was in, the headquarters with solar panels on the roof and she said, "This is something that is very American isn’t it? You Americans are people who say we can do it — we can do it ourselves."

She in fact was inspired by Jimmy Carter, a lot of the people who started the Energiewende in Germany, including Hans-Josef Fell who was the main author of the Renewable Energy Act, he was inspired by Jimmy Carter and the renewable energy revolution that he tried to start here in the U.S. by putting solar panels on the roof of the White House and funding solar projects throughout the country and wind projects. Fell said he looked around and saw pictures of all of that and wondered why they couldn’t have that in Germany. And now the situation is simply reversed.

We did start down that road, and when Reagan came in a decision was made to scuttle that and to go back to dependence on fossil fuels.

I think that if Americans now take a look at Germany and see what they’ve done and start doing that now here, yes, I think we can get to where Germany is and in fact the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado, the main government technology center for renewable energies, came out with a report this past year that said by the year 2050 the U.S. could be getting 80 percent of our power from renewables; by coincidence, that’s exactly what Germany’s goal is.

We obviously have the resources to do it. So I think it’s a matter of political will and also empowerment. A lot of Americans feel there is nothing they can do because of all these big companies — well, I don’t have much patience for that. The Germans could have said the same thing, but they rolled up their sleeves and started taking action at a local level and eventually that forced political leaders to respond.

So, we shouldn’t whine about it — we should get busy and do it.

Osha Gray Davidson's new book Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It (InsideClimate News, 2012), is available as an e-book here.

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