While US Sleeps, Germany Builds the Renewable World
November 18, 2012
I’ve posted many times about the German experiment in renewables. They keep charging ahead while we dither. Thanks Tea Party!
The nuclear industry and its supporters pounced on Merkel’s decision. They predicted blackouts on a scale Germany hadn’t experienced since World War II and skyrocketing electricity prices that would wreck the nation’s heavy manufacturing sector, the bedrock of the German economy. They warned that Germany would cease to be an energy exporter and be forced to import electricity from, of all places, French nuclear power plants. Utilities would have to burn more coal to make up for the lost nuclear power, they said, pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The British weekly The Economist branded Merkel’s action “a lunatic gamble.”
More than a year and a half later, however, those dire predictions haven’t materialized.
There have been no blackouts since Merkel’s announcement. On the contrary, Germany’s grid, which was already the most reliable in Europe, experienced a total of just 15 minutes and 31 seconds of brownouts in 2011, an improvement over 2010. (The comparable figure for the United States is measured in hours.) The wholesale price of electricity has gone down, not up. The electricity-intensive German manufacturing sector is still thriving. And Germany finished 2011 as a net exporter of energy, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent.
How did the critics get it so wrong? According to many German energy experts, the naysayers couldn’t envision how the new energy economy would work. Rainer Baake, who brokered the original plan to phase out nuclear, said the critics didn’t understand that while a single source of renewable energy can’t match the constant power of a coal or nuclear plant, a mix of renewable sources can achieve a similar result. For example, solar power produces a predictable range of energy during the day, while winds blow primarily at night. Getting the mix right isn’t easy. But so far, Baake argued, Germany’s experience suggests that it is possible.
Still, more needs to be done to make a smooth transition to a renewable energy economy. The antiquated power system must become more flexible and nimble, able to respond quickly to demand, something the old system wasn’t designed to do, Rainer Baake stressed. For all practical purposes, coal and nuclear power have only two settings: off and on. Supporters of the Energiewende argue that this limitation is another reason to stop using coal and nuclear. “The Big Four were right about one thing,” Baake admitted. “You have to choose between the old system and the new one. And we have chosen renewables.”
Kadner seemed especially proud of one achievement—a comprehensive “lifecycle analysis” establishing how much CO2 each energy source produces from manufacturing to disposal. Using the largest data set ever compiled, researchers determined that, compared to fossil fuels, renewables sources such as wind and solar power released 10 to 100 times less CO2 per unit of energy.
In practical terms, Kadner said, “What we found was that if you want to mitigate climate change, first, renewable energies can play a role. And second, they have to play a role.”
Kadner and her colleagues calculated that of the 300 gigawatts of new electrical generating capacity built throughout the world between 2008 and 2009, 140 gigawatts—nearly half the total—came from renewables. (An average size nuclear reactor produces one gigawatt of electricity)
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.
“The fight now, to the extent that there is one, is over the speed of the transition,” Jens Kendzia told me as we stood on the Reichstag roof. Kendzia is chief of staff for a leader of the center-left Green Party, which crafted the legislation responsible for the Energiewende‘s success.
In an interview later that day, Dr. Joachim Pfeiffer, a leading spokesman for the center-right Christian Democrats, boasted about the Energiewende‘s progress under his party.
“We’ll definitely get to 35 percent renewable power by 2020,” he said, referring to the next official target. “In fact, we’ll probably reach 40 percent.”
Twenty-five 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.
The U.S. wasn’t always so timid. Thirty years ago, we led the world in renewable energy research and production, and Jimmy Carter’s White House was the first government building in the world to install solar panels on its roof. Ursula Sladek, a resident of the tiny Black Forest village of Schönau, remembers reading about the installation project in the 1970s, when the United States was hit by soaring oil prices and gasoline shortages. Sladek, an elementary school teacher married to the village doctor, marveled at America’s resilience, ingenuity and spirit—and at President Carter’s vision.
The panels were unceremoniously hauled down by President Ronald Reagan a few years later, of course, and the image of Carter in a wool cardigan counseling his fellow citizens to dial back their thermostats to conserve energy became an object of ridicule in the United States.
But Sladek—like most of the Germans I met—never got the joke. For them, the peanut farmer from Georgia, who tried to chart a new energy future for America, became the unlikely inspiration for their Energiewende.
I finished with the one question I asked in almost every interview: What lessons can the United States learn from Germany’s Energiewende?
The question took her by surprise. She looked around the room at what had been accomplished by a handful of ordinary citizens. “This is something very American, isn’t it? ” she said. “The Americans are people who say: ‘We can do it ourselves.'”
Sladek paused. Then she spoke slowly and simply like the schoolteacher she once was. “You can’t wait for what you want to come from above,” she said. “We are here. We can do something. And so, we begin.”
According to predictions by leading experts, prices for producing solar power will continue to decrease. “One can safely assume costs for solar energy will drop by one third until 2020,” said Philippe Welter, analyst and editor of the magazine Photon, which focuses on solar issues.
According to this, prices for solar energy from small-scale plants in Germany could fall to eight euro cents. Energy produced by big-scale plants in South Europe to four to five euro cents. This would make solar energy even cheaper than coal.
Solar energy would become especially lucrative for direct consumption. Today, German consumers pay about 25 euro cents per kilowatt hour to use power from the grid. That’s about 10 euro cents more than they would pay for solar power from a new installation on their rooftop. If energy prices continue to rise like they have in the past, German households would be paying about 40 euro cents per kilowatt hour for power from the grid by 2025. According to Welter’s calculations, it would be only 8 euro cents per kilowatt hour for solar power from a new installation.
The trend will be similar in other countries worldwide, says Christian Breyer, CEO of the Reiner Lemoine Institute in Berlin. By 2025, solar power will be cheaper than power from the grid in 90 percent of all countries.