Germany’s Energiewende: Watching the Future Unfold

November 15, 2012

It used to be that the world looked to the United States for technological leadership. Just 20 years ago, the US was leading the world into a new, revolutionary, internet economy.  It’s kind of ironic that, back then, voices on the American right ridiculed “Al Gore’s Information Superhighway” as some kind of wasteful, useless government boondoggle – just as today, the same people rail against electric cars, wind turbines, and solar manufacturing.

I’m optimistic that the US will catch up and perhaps even lead again in the industrial revolution of the new century. For now, if you want to see what the future looks like, look to Germany.


 There is no better place to begin this adventure than the Reichstag, rebuilt from near ruins in 1999 and now both a symbol and an example of the revolutionary movement known as 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.

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.”

Pfeiffer isn’t happy about every aspect of the campaign. He thinks the German public’s call to eliminate nuclear power by 2022 was “an emotional reaction to what happened at Fukushima.” But he’s quick to add that this is just his personal belief. After all, the leader of his own party, Chancellor Angela Merkel, made the nuclear phase-out national policy in 2011. “Eighty percent of Germans are now against nuclear power,” Pfeiffer explained, placing his hands on the table palms face up, in a gesture of capitulation. “It’s over.”

The pervasiveness of the Energiewende was driven home for me on a six-hour train ride through the German countryside. Gazing out the window as the train raced from Hamburg in the north to near the border with Switzerland in the south, massive wind turbines and rooftops covered with solar panels were seldom out of sight. A couple of hours into the journey we rounded a bend and the scene took on a surreal quality. Yet another cluster of barns and outbuildings came into view, the red ceramic roof tiles nearly hidden by blue, solar photovoltaic panels. The buildings swam in a sea of bright yellow rapeseed—the raw material of biodiesel fuel. On a distant slope, the long thin blades of three wind turbines revolved in unison as if choreographed. I was suddenly seized by the desire to grab the well-dressed man in the seat next to me, who was engrossed in today’s Die Zeit, and demand that he look out the window and tell me if this Energiewende parade is real or a moveable tableau staged for foreign journalists.

The numbers I gathered on my trip seem as unlikely as the scene out the window.

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.

Phys org:

Following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government took the nation’s eight oldest reactors offline immediately and passed legislation that will close the last nuclear power plant by 2022. This nuclear phase-out had overwhelming political support in Germany. Elsewhere, many saw it as “panic politics,” and the online business magazine went as far as to ask, in a headline, whether the decision was “Insane—or Just Plain Stupid.”

But a special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE, “The German Nuclear Exit,” shows that the nuclear shutdown and an accompanying move toward renewable energy are already yielding measurable economic and environmental benefits, with one top expert calling the German phase-out a probable game-changer for the nuclear industry worldwide.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

When empirical observation is analyzed in light of a range of economic models, the price effect of the nuclear phase-out can be expected to peak at 5 euros per megawatt-hour or less for a few years around 2020, a reasonably small increase compared with the uncertainties created by other fundamental determinants of EuropeÕs electricity prices. The macroeconomic effects attributable to the complete shut- down of nuclear power also appear likely to be relatively small, peaking at perhaps 0.3 percent of gross domestic product or less a few years before 2030. In the end, the management of the German transition to an energy mix dominated by renewable energiesÑand not the use of the existing nuclear reactor fleet for a decade more or lessÑwill be the key determinant of whether that shift has larger or smaller effects on elec- tricity prices or on the German economy overall.

10 Responses to “Germany’s Energiewende: Watching the Future Unfold”

  1. danolner Says:

    The community ownership stats are very interesting. It poses a very interesting question, but it’s very difficult to answer. I know many people are lamenting the impact that nuclear’s loss of public support is having (with many saying without it, climate targets become impossible). But if distributed community ownership can work – perhaps along with smart energy grids and community management of useage and efficiency targets – it could have very interesting implications.

    It’s always struck me as well, these distributed networks are exactly the kind of structure Hayek always claimed as a fundamental benefit of distributed free market structures: no centralisable power = no way to impose control. Given how tightly energy and geopolitics are threaded together, perhaps the one follows the other quite closely.

    Or it might just be the strong coffee I just had.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      if we had real conservatives any more, they’d be all over this.


      “Germany’s economics ministry released a study that estimated that the cost of the nuclear phase out in lost jobs and higher energy prices and carbon emissions permit fees (since Germany is part of the European carbon trading scheme) will be about $46 billion.”
      “Of course, solar power, which Germany has heavily subsidized, started from almost nothing in 2000, so this is a misleading numbers game. After all of this effort, solar power accounts for only 1.1 percent of Germany’s total electricity supply, and supplied only 5 percent as much electricity as its nuclear power plants.”
      “… all of the effort and subsidies Germany has put behind wind and solar power, they still both account for a fraction of the power output of nuclear power in 2010.”
      “To make up for the lost nuclear power, solar capacity would have to grow more than 20-fold from its current level, but Germany is already cutting back on solar subsidies because it cannot afford it. This is the main reason the Institute of Energy Economics at Cologne University estimates that most of the lost nuclear electricity will be made up gas-fired power, and supply from other countries …”

      In “green” not only Germany, there is something that is called: creative accounting …, as usual.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        be careful of any analysis coming from the American Enterprise Institute.
        meanwhile, in spite of all the handwringing, Germany remains a net exporter of electricity.

  2. Bruce Miller Says:

    Still, my question must be asked: What did the very astute and world recognized German Scientists say to their governemnt that has been kept from the rest of the world, and especially the American sheeple by their Great Corporate American Propaganda Whores, their tightly controlled media and movies ? Apparently the province of Ontario has moved in the same direction? Collusion or a meeting of greater minds?
    Fact is: Chinese Scientists are working hard to change the “Energy Map of The World” with safe, cheap, mass producible Thorium LFTR reactors by 2017.
    I do not speak ‘through my hat’:
    All the while, America has concentrated on Military Bomb making Plutonium disaster for the world: tells this story well.
    The American Nuclear Establishment is blind to Thorium as a safe, clean, simple, nuclear fuel. In fact the ass-holes are paying to dispose of it:
    “”Lynas Corp. (OTC: LYSCF.PK) is actually planning to get rid of the thorium it will encounter at Mount Weld. The expensive plans involve diluting the radioactive metal with lime, encasing it in concrete and using it for artificial reef systems. – stupid Americans?””
    “”The U.S. government even has 3,200 metric tons of thorium trapped in nuclear waste from the 1960s. Since disposal would cost $60 million, the waste is buried in a shallow grave in Nevada.
    It’s estimated that there are only about 80 years left of sustainable uranium production.””
    My estimate is 5 years for China to have a Boeing-style, pre-fab factory for TFMSR’s producing one 100MWe generating station each week (Holton’s generating capacity is 20MWe). Expect the AP-1000′s to be canceled in favor of TFMSR’s which take at least 50% less money and land area to build, and they can be air-cooled or used for industrial heat.
    China has stockpiled enough thorium from their rare-earth mining operations to keep ALL those TFMSR’s running for centuries. Meantime the US considers thorium a toxic nuclear waste (which keeps US rare-earth mines closed, and DoD at China’s mercy) and has buried 3,200 tons of thorium “waste” in the Nevada desert. Plans are in place to spend $500 million to destroy the thorium stash in Nevada. Better to sell the 3,200 tons to China, OR let Flibe Energy jump-start TFMSR production in the US. Think jobs!

  3. Best (critical) a description of the risks for Germany (lesson for politicians irreverent the economy) is here:

    “Idiosyncratically [i.e. anti-market], the subsidy structure that favors renewable energy sources effectuates the market to decide that renewable energy sources and gas generation become perfect substitutes within the energy mix where renewable energy sources clearly win.”

    but …

    “But in light of Germany’s history of announcing a phase-out of nuclear power before, which produced the “Dash for Coal”, Germany may have locked in some of the dirtiest fossil fuels.”

  4. neilrieck Says:

    As I understand it (after reading: “The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy”), everyone thought Germany’s move to Green Energy in 1999 was a move in the wrong direction. It started when politicians, like Dr. Hermann Scheer, suggested that “Carbon Taxes” and “Carbon Trading” attacked the problem from the wrong direction then proposed a FIT (feed-in-tariffs) program to support new technologies by adding one cent per kw/h to rate-payer bills then using this non-government money to stimulate a new industry. It resulted in adding 250,000 tax-paying full-time green-collar jobs to Germany’s economy.

  5. […] 2012/11/15: PSinclair: Germany’s Energiewende: Watching the Future Unfold […]

  6. […] some unevenness, bumps along the way, and a few major problems that need to be ironed out, Germany’s energy transformation continues, driven by a deceptively simple policy that has proven to be the most effective driver […]

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