How the German people ushered in a green energy revolution

Energy Democracy: Germany's Energiewende to Renewables examines the country's move to alternative power, which the authors say was not guided by a blueprint but by communities themselves.

A solar cell power plant in Foehren, Rhineland-Palatinate state, Germany. Photo Michael Gottschalk / Photothek via Getty Images
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For proof that it is possible for nations to transition from CO2-intensive fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, and sooner rather than later, look to Germany’s example. The Germans call their renewables revolution the Energiewende, or clean energy transition, which has pioneering successes – and gaffes too – to its credit that can help the world shift to sustainable, low-carbon economies to mitigate global warming.

Other countries, such as Denmark and Norway, and American states like California, also boast best practices. But Germany has upped the share of renewable electricity in its power mix from virtually nothing in 2000 to more than 33 per cent today, and, say environmentalists, it could be fossil-free by 2030 if it wanted to be.

Germany has achieved this at terrific speed without impoverishing the state or consumers, alongside its phase-out of nuclear power. Moreover, contrary to the dire warnings of critics, the economy has grown, as have exports, as Germany’s power supply has become more renewable. The big takeaway: if such a heavily industrialized economy as Germany’s can make the switch without blackouts or bankruptcy, so can the rest of the world. The technology is there: above all, wind and solar power.

While Germany’s Energiewende is a topic intensely reported on and discussed in Germany, it’s much less familiar outside of the country. Foreign media often misconstrue it, either overwhelmed by the specialist topic of energy or unwilling to question the relentless PR of the conventional energy sector.

This gap in knowledge is now smaller thanks to the lucid tome Energy Democracy by German energy expert and Green Party loyalist Arne Jungjohann and the Germany-based US blogger Craig Morris, who have made it their business to explain the Energiewende to non-Germans – now, finally, in book form.

Jungjohann and Morris are fans of Germany’s energy overhaul. But they’re not uncritical. They don’t deny that Germany is still miles away from ramping down its use of dirty coal, and that in critical sectors such as heating, mobility and efficiency, Germany has much to catch up on. Furthermore, they’re not in the least pleased with the moves of the current government to brake the Energiewende and hand it over to big power companies. They’re also adamant that other countries can’t simply copy the Energiewende, but that they can cull some valuable pointers from it.

One of the Energiewende’s messages, they argue, is that a master plan or detailed blueprint of a renewables transition is neither necessary nor desirable. Germany didn’t have one and still doesn’t, even though it has ballpark goals written into law: an 80 per cent clean electricity supply by 2050, 60 per cent of that through renewables in heat and motor fuels.

By mid-century, carbon emissions must be reduced by 90 per cent. There should also be one million e-cars on the road by 2020.

But how to get there isn’t written in stone anywhere. The Energiewende has been an open-ended process that has benefited tremendously from flexibility, which has enabled it to respond to developments in society, technology and politics. Wind and solar power proved themselves the best match for Germany in a crowded field of competitors, from geothermal to ethanol. In fact, the tandem outpaced optimists’ wildest predictions, which meant Germany has had to rethink its energy regime on the fly and adjust accordingly.

Today, there are still many unanswered questions, such as whether power storage, load shifting or smart grids – or which combination of them -- are best in order to manage a system based on weather-dependent sources.

In terms of mobility, Germany still hasn’t decided whether it will place its bet on hydrogen, electricity or biofuels to make the jump to zero-carbon transportation, an endeavour it has barely started.

There’s no consensus on the full-fledged redesign of Germany’s power markets either – other than its imperative. As for biofuels, there’s raging debate on their usefulness, an issue that Morris and Jungjohann could have addressed more directly.

In fact, Germany’s un-Germanic leap into the unknown, long before the technology was cheap or perfected, belongs to its recipe. It was through the actual deployment of solar panels and wind turbines that those industries could create economies of scale and tweak its hardware, enabling prices to fall and technology to advance. The lesson here: just do it. Don’t wait for the next generation of technology or the perfect master plan.

Another takeaway from Germany – and the theme that ties this book together – is that “energy democracy” has been critical to the German experience (and Denmark’s as well.) By energy democracy, the authors mean the thorough-going participation of individuals and local communities in the production of energy: the turning of passive consumers into active prosumers with citizen-owned and -operated energy generation. The impetus for and backbone of the Energiewende has come from below, not from the giant energy utilities, which tenaciously defend the status quo.

Germany’s energy transition has changed more than just the composition of its energy mix, underscore the authors. The citizen-led uprising has shifted power relations in society, changed the way local communities operate, and, for the first time in history, has made energy something that ordinary people have a say in.

In fact, the roots of the Energiewende reach back to 1970s West Germany, long before climate change was scientific consensus. In Germany’s southwestern-most corner, German, Swiss and French activists joined forces to stop construction of a nuclear reactor in the border region and a planned lead plant in nearby France. The wine farmers feared for their crops, demanding a voice in the decision-making that impacted them. The activists, which included deeply-conservative elements, won the battle, igniting a popular mass movement in West Germany that mobilized more than a million people over three decades.

At the time, energy generation and its distribution was concentrated in the hands of four energy conglomerates and several dozen local players. In the late 1990s and 2000, a propitious combination of EU anti-monopoly laws, German legislation opening up the energy market to new parties and investment support in renewables, set the Energiewende in motion, even if few called it by name then.

The response was on a scale that no one had anticipated. Individual investors and tinkers, small and medium-sized businesses, newly-formed citizen energy cooperatives, green investment funds and community-led initiatives pounced on the opportunity to invest in solar arrays and onshore wind turbines. They sold their product in kilowatts to the power grid operators who, according to the land’s new laws, had to buy it from them, and at a set price.

This is when renewables started their steep ascent. The big utilities, smarting from the break-up of their easy-money monopolies, stubbornly refused to join in: renewables were too small, well-intentioned kid’s stuff, nothing to power a muscular, industrial economy like Germany’s. They chose to fight it instead, spending millions to discredit renewables.

Germany’s utility giants suffered another blow, also from the grass-roots. Since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, most Germans objected to nuclear power, a majority that only grew over the years, as did the mass movement, until in 1998 a coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens took office in the united Germany.

The Greens were a party that hailed from the anti-nuclear energy movement and had the country’s exit from nuclear power inscribed on its programme. Although the 30-year phase-out wasn’t what Green activists wanted, it set the process in motion.

But still the utilities, heavily invested in nuclear, refused to jump on the renewables bandwagon. They fought tooth and nail until Angela Merkel, in her second term, amended the phase-out to allow nuclear power stations’ longevity.

But the victory was pyrrhic. When nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, melted down in spring 2011, Merkel reversed the decision and in one fell swoop shut down a third of Germany’s reactors. For the first time, she employed the term Energiewende in public, leading many observers to think that Merkel herself began the Energiewende in 2011.

Today, the Energiewende is endorsed by all of Germany's parties, as is the phase-out of nuclear power by 2020. Yet, the Merkel government, argue Energy Democracy's authors, has turned its back on the citizen movement responsible for its success. Berlin wants to slow the Energiewende down, not least by letting the beleaguered utilities in on the action. Rather than investment incentives for citizens and communities, the government has endorsed auctions, something tailored to well-heeled investors.

The authors realize full well that now renewables are price-wise competitive with fossil fuels, the markets will increasingly drive investment. But a top-down Energiewende, even if it increases the volume of renewables, is not in the spirit of the movement.

“In the worst case,” they argue, “the German public may wake up in, say, 2030 to find that the large companies entrusted with transition have convinced politicians that 50 percent of renewable electricity and 30 renewable energy is enough; the 2050 targets could be abandoned – just as Denmark’s new government is now calling its 2050 targets into question.”

Paul Hockenos also writes for The New York Times, Newsweek and Foreign Policy. He is based in Berlin.