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.
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 Forbes.com 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.
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.