Germany’s Energy Transition Overwhelmingly Popular, despite Deniers
June 20, 2016
Above, 8 second snip from a Fox News report showing typical anti-renewable energy propaganda.
I show this as comic relief in my presentations, and it’s always good for a laugh..
(full clip here if you’re interested)
A quick look Fox reporter Shibani Joshi’s wikipedia entry shows that she is married to Joshi Rahul Advani, “a principal at Energy Capital Partners”, a firm that, according to its website, “focuses on investing in the power generation, midstream oil and gas, electric transmission, environmental infrastructure and energy services”.
Wow, who could have imagined that?
Since we haven’t been at war with Germany in 60 years, many Americans, especially Fox News viewers, don’t know where it is, so in my presentations, I always put up a map to show that Germany is a small, cloudy, northern European country at about the same latitude as Labrador, Canada.
Since Germany bashing continues to be a staple for the anti-science brigade, here’s the latest update.
Some of the positive Energiewende reporting leaves the reader with the impression as if Germany was a lonely leader on a path to decarbonization of power production through the usage of distributed renewables. But of course, Germany is not going alone. The country has many ambitious allies around the globe like Denmark or California, which have even more ambitious goals than my home country of Germany.
However, the international Energiewende reporting makes me want to rub my eyes. If one is to believe those reports, industry is fleeing because energy costs are going through the roof. Since Germany’s supposed panic reaction to Fukushima and the shutdown of nuclear reactors in 2011, the country is allegedly increasingly dependent on power imports, and its grid is less stable than before. And those are just a few of the unfounded claims:
Fact-checking reveals that the above statements are myths. Readers of this blog know that the Energiewende is neither an irrational reaction to Fukushima, nor unique in its ambitions. Nonetheless, these myths keep circulating through the international press. How can this divergent discourse be explained?
Four different factors help explain this divergence between the German and international understanding of the Energiewende:
- German politicians sometimes paint a bleak picture of Germany’s Energiewende in order to win over a specific audience or corner a constituency at home. German journalists can see through such tactics and distinguish fact from hyperbole, but it’s harder for foreign observers. An example? In April 2014, Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel gave a speech at a national solar summit at which he claimed that the “German Energiewende is close to becoming a failure”. His purpose was to tell an audience of solar representatives that he had no choice but to cut support for solar. Abroad, a number of blogs and news outlets saw the minister’s quote as an official admission that the strategy of Germany’s energy transition was fundamentally flawed and bound to fail. They subsequently covered the story with unequivocal titles such as ”the green energy orgy in Germany is over.” Tellingly – the German press did not understand Gabriel’s statement that way.
- Few German media outlets cover energy politics in English comprehensively. Until recently, only a small part of the overall energy discourse in Germany reached the outside world in English at all. The result was selective reporting, as most English media outlets do not have their own reporters and fact-checkers on the ground to contextualize the news. One prominent example was a one-sided report by SPIEGEL ONLINE, for years the only major German news outlet available in English, which reported how electricity was supposedly becoming a luxury item in Germany. Subsequently, a number of foreign media outlets (such as the NYT) picked up the topic along with its skewed framing. Fortunately, over the last few years, more German media outlets have started offering news in English. In addition, a number of specialized actors appeared, offering professionalized information on the Energiewende in English specifically to foreign journalists and decision-makers.
- Still, misunderstandings can occur. Journalists, like everybody else, are socialized and operate in a specific political and cultural environment. A French reporter is most familiar with a power sector dominated by large nuclear interests, offering little room for input from ordinary citizens. Furthermore, French nuclear power has long been seen as a cornerstone of French industrial policy. In this context, recent developments in Germany can be hard to contextualize for French onlookers. German news on a renewable energy transition driven largely by small-scale, distributed community power does not fit into existing notions of centralized power generation. International onlookers therefore often ask how the government gets the public to accept its renewable energy policies, whereas the reverse is a better question: how does the public get the government to implement certain policies when energy corporations get hurt in the process.
- Finally, the nuclear and fossil-fuel firms impact public discourse. They provide financial support to a number of think tanks, universities, and research institutes. By doing so, the industry hopes to emphasize the continued importance of conventional energy. In their efforts to delegitimize the Energiewende, they readily rely on the afore-mentioned tactical hyperbole within the German debate and selective reporting in English to make their findings seem sound. Pointing out the spin requires more familiarity with the Energiewende than international readers generally have. Such reports argue, for instance, that the Energiewende is losing popular support – even as 93% of Germans continue to support the energy transition.
Communication on the Energiewende is improving
The current misunderstandings about the Energiewende abroad call for a more proactive and target-oriented communication. It is not enough to simply provide information. Instead, data, context and contacts need to be 1) specifically catered to the journalists and decision-makers around the globe; 2) provided in their mother-tongue; and 3) be as comprehensive as possible (including alerting to some of the difficulties) in order to reflect the true Energiewende story.
If Germany can demonstrate that there is a pathway for industrial economies into a post-fossil age, it will encourage others to follow suit. It would be a pity if Germany succeeded – but nobody heard about it.
Government and utilities were pushing nuclear power—but many Germans were pushing back. This was new for them. In the decades after World War II, with a ruined country to rebuild, there had been little appetite for questioning authority or the past. But by the 1970s, the rebuilding was complete, and a new generation was beginning to question the one that had started and lost the war. “There’s a certain rebelliousness that’s a result of the Second World War,” a 50-something man named Josef Pesch told me. “You don’t blindly accept authority.”
Pesch was sitting in a mountaintop restaurant in the Black Forest outside Freiburg. In a snowy clearing just uphill stood two 320-foot-tall wind turbines funded by 521 citizen investors recruited by Pesch—but we weren’t talking about the turbines yet. With an engineer named Dieter Seifried, we were talking about the nuclear reactor that never got built, near the village of Wyhl, 20 miles away on the Rhine River.
The state government had insisted that the reactor had to be built or the lights would go out in Freiburg. But beginning in 1975, local farmers and students occupied the site. In protests that lasted nearly a decade, they forced the government to abandon its plans. It was the first time a nuclear reactor had been stopped in Germany.
The lights didn’t go out, and Freiburg became a solar city. Its branch of the Fraunhofer Institute is a world leader in solar research. Its Solar Settlement, designed by local architect Rolf Disch, who’d been active in the Wyhl protests, includes 50 houses that all produce more energy than they consume. “Wyhl was the starting point,” Seifried said. In 1980 an institute that Seifried co-founded published a study called Energiewende—giving a name to a movement that hadn’t even been born yet.
It would not be correct, however, to conclude that there is no competition with feed-in tariffs. For a given feed-in tariff, companies – from panel manufacturers to local installers – compete for customers. For instance, let’s say you want to put a solar array on your house. In Germany, you will get a couple of estimates from local installers, who will probably also give you a couple of options (such as monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels, or panels made in Germany or abroad). All of the companies you could buy from compete with each other.
Feed-in tariffs unleash the market
Not surprisingly, feed-in tariffs do not lead to unnecessarily high prices. In fact, Germany has the cheapest solar power in the world not because it has so much sunlight, but because of investment certainty and market maturity due to its feed-in tariff policy. Solar is so much cheaper in Germany than it is in sunny parts of the US, for instance, that the largest, most cost-efficient utility-scale solar power plants there still produce considerably more expensive power than small to midsize arrays in Germany. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimated the cost of commercial solar rooftops (10-100 kW) in the US at just above four dollars per watt at the end of 2013, compared to around 1.5 dollars in Germany.
Up until 2008, when the bottleneck in the supply of solar silicon finally worked itself out, critics of feed-in tariffs charged that Germany had been paying too much for photovoltaics with its feed-in tariffs, thereby keeping the cost up for the rest of the world, including developing countries in particular. But since prices began to plummet in 2008, we don’t hear that criticism anymore – because it wasn’t true in the first place.
Changes in German feed-in tariffs for PV did not bring about these lower prices; on the contrary, German politicians have been rushing to reduce solar feed-in tariffs to keep up with falling prices. Those who once claimed that German feed-in tariffs kept the price of solar up for the rest of the world should now explain why prices are down so much without being driven by cuts in German feed-in tariffs for PV.
The truth is that solar can get cheaper even if feed-in tariffs remain unchanged because there is still a competitive market. If you want to install a solar roof, you will pick one of the least expensive offers on the market.
The U.S. is lagging behind Germany in solar power generation, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our solar potential. In fact, the Southwest has “among the best photovoltaic resources in the world,” according to a report by GTM Research. And even the East Coast states have greater solar potential than Germany, as illustrated by this map from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: