Germany shows that renewable power benefits economy and environment
By Margaret Cheney | March 17,2013
Above, Bob Walker, director of the Vermont Sustainable Energy Resource Group, and Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, tour renewable energy installations in Germany last fall. This 650-kilowatt anaerobic biodigester in the Bavarian village of Grossbardorf is fed by manure and maize supplied by local farmers. Village residents earn revenue from its output — 40 percent electric power for the grid and 60 percent heat, piped under village sidewalks to homes and a small factory. Their cooperative invested $19 million to develop this biogas plant and solar systems on roofs and land around the village, including the 1.9-megawatt solar system shown at left.
Germany is the buzz topic in the energy world. Ten years ago, that country relied almost exclusively on coal and nuclear power for its electricity. Today it has rejected nuclear and fossil fuels and is on track to being the greenest country in the world — while maintaining its lead as one of the largest and healthiest economies.
How did Germany do this?
I had a chance to see for myself last fall, when the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a political nonprofit group based in Berlin, invited nine Americans to Germany for a week-long dialogue about energy and climate. We talked with key players from many perspectives, ranging from members of Parliament in Berlin to farmers in Bavaria.
Unlike many in the United States, Europeans recognize climate change as a crisis that threatens their economy and way of life. The European Union as a whole has agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase renewable energy and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020.
But Germany has gone much further. It recognizes not only the imperative of combating climate change but, as a massive importer of fossil fuels, the economic opportunities that go along with energy independence and the domestic development of new technologies.
In 2000 Germany set its first goal of acquiring 12.5 percent of its electric generation from renewable sources by 2010. To meet this goal, a feed-in tariff law was passed requiring that renewable energy producers be paid a predictable, long-term price based on technology cost.
Because producers could make a profit, renewable projects mushroomed — and the 12.5 percent goal was achieved three years early.
So Germany upped the ante. In 2010, it passed its famous “Energiewende” transition program — ambitious targets stretching 40 years into the future for reduced GHG emissions, lower consumption of fossil fuels and increased production of renewable power.
In 2011, in reaction to the Fukushima meltdown in Japan — and in the historical context of fallout from Chernobyl in 1986 — Germany legislated a phaseout of its 17 nuclear power plants. It also passed new efficiency laws and made plans to improve its power grid.
How is Germany doing so far? Last fall when we were touring the country, Germany had just reached the 25 percent mark in renewable power — up from only 3 percent in 2000.
This power is being supplied by wind, biomass, solar and hydro plants. Even as Germany’s GHG emissions have dropped by 24 percent since the end of the Cold War, its gross domestic product has risen by 27 percent.
Germany remains an industrial powerhouse — the largest and healthiest economy in Europe as well as its renewable pacesetter.
The transformation is evident everywhere in Germany. From railroads and highways we saw 300-foot wind turbines dotting the landscape near towns, small factories and farms. Roofs of all sizes host solar arrays.
We visited community projects limited only by residents’ imaginations. A municipal soccer stadium, once badly in need of a roof, is sheltered by solar panels that also supply revenue to the town. In Bavaria, a biodigester — owned by a rural cooperative and fed by local manure and plant stock — sells its electricity to the grid and its waste heat to village homes and a small manufacturing plant.
A primary reason that renewable energy enjoys an 80 percent approval rate among Germans is that many projects are owned by cooperatives.
Half of the wind projects in Germany are community-owned — compared with 2 percent in the United States — and 11 percent of renewable profiteers are farmers. What people own, they tend to like.
In the United States, many are skeptical about some forms of renewable power and even climate change. So I asked everyone I could, from policymakers to small-town mayors and farmers, “Does everyone see climate change as a threat? How do neighbors react to nearby projects? What about electric rates?”
Germans were often bemused by my first question — of course climate change is scientifically proven and dangerous. As to impacts on neighbors, most people like nearby projects because they enjoy part ownership. A rigorous approval process sites projects intelligently. Higher electric rates represent a growing national concern, but policymakers are adjusting the feed-in tariff structure to mitigate increases.
With German pragmatism, policymakers react to challenges not by rejecting the path they are on but by adjusting — just as they are adjusting their transmission system to take on more renewable power.
What lessons did I bring back to Vermont?
First, problem-solving means economic opportunity. In taking on the climate challenge, Germany has already added 382,000 new, skilled jobs to its labor force. And if the country’s ambitious transition goals are met by 2050, some 500,000 more jobs will have been created.
I also learned that stable, predictable pricing is crucial to an emerging sector of the economy. Vermont took a page from Germany’s feed-in tariff book when we passed our own version in 2009. Since then we have seen more than 50 megawatts’ worth of new local projects and the jobs associated with them.
Another important lesson from Germany is that increased reliance on renewables must go hand-in-hand with less energy consumption. Efficiency is key. Vermont has been leading in electric efficiency since Efficiency Vermont’s beginning in 2000 — but we must reduce our use of fossil fuels to heat our buildings and find ways to make transportation greener. We’re taking on those challenges in the Legislature this year.
The last and perhaps most important lesson from Germany is that public involvement and participation are vital. If members of the public benefit from the change to green energy, they will be its biggest supporters.
Margaret Cheney is a state representative and vice chairwoman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. She lives in Norwich and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.