Impossible, But Those Germans Do It Anyway

The main research windmills at NREL

The main research windmills at NREL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Renewable energy is expensive.  It’s unreliable.  There’s no way to store it.  Anyway the scientists are still arguing about global warming, so why wreck the economy for something that might not exist?

We all know these things here in Australia, but here’s a weird thing.  Those tree-hugging pixie-lovers the Germans are converting to renewable energy anyway.  They plan to phase out nuclear power within a decade.  The official target is to reduce fossil-fuel use by 80% by 2050, but many people think it will be reduced to zero before then.  Already more than 25% of electricity comes from renewable sources.

It gets weirder.  About half the renewable energy generation is owned by individuals, small companies and cooperatives.  Whole villages and neighbourhoods have banded together to install energy systems using wind, solar and biomass to generate energy more economically and distribute it locally.

What’s happened to the Germans?  They’re famous for their engineering, their practicality, and above all their efficiency.  Do they think a modern industrial country can run on pixie dust?  Their economy will be ruined.

Well no, their economy is doing quite well thank you (despite the monumental muddling of EU bankers).  The retail price of energy has dropped.  And last year, despite the post-Fukushima shut-down of nine old nuclear power plants, their greenhouse emissions dropped by two percent.

The Germans haven’t lost their minds, they are being their same old smart, practical selves.  And they are doing something else we don’t do much in Australia.  They’re pulling together, forming cooperatives and local companies, doing things at a local scale that enhances efficiency.  As a result, they are also democratising their energy systems, so big utilities now produce only about half of their electricity.

The big change started in the year 2000, when they passed the laws establishing feed-in tariffs, though which consumers of fossil-fuelled electricity subsidise the production of renewable energy.  That adds about ten percent to the cost of old electricity, but people know fossil-fuelled electricity will only get more expensive, so they’re largely willing to bear the cost of the conversion.

A crucial feature of the feed-in tariff is that it is guaranteed for twenty years.  That gives security to investors in the new systems.  In Australia, although there have been many schemes to promote renewable energy, it seems that whenever one of them looks like taking off it’s cut or changed.  That uncertainty stifles investment and development.  Perhaps this stop-start approach is accidental, perhaps not, but it certainly suits the established fossil-fuel industries.

Germans readily acknowledge there is still much to do.  Energy storage is a key.  However they don’t call it a problem, nor even a challenge – merely a “task”.  They have the confidence Americans once had, and Australians have never had.

Several factors have contributed to the adoption of the present policy, apart from the good practical sense of the Germans.  Germany does not have much fossil fuel within its borders.  Rather than just talking about energy independence, as they do in the US, Germany set about becoming independent.

The global warming debate has been long over in Germany, and support for the renewable energy path is about 80% and runs across the political political spectrum.

Memories of radioactivity falling across Germany from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 are still strong, so the reaction in Germany to Japan’s Fukushima meltdowns was strong.  Within a week Chancellor Merkel had temporarily closed older nuclear plants and that closure was soon made permanent.

A great irony is that many of those who were central to creating the present policy were inspired by President Jimmy Carter and by Californian policies in the 1970s.  Carter put photovoltaic panels on the roof of the White House and established the Solar Energy Research Institute.  Germans who visited the US in those days lamented that such things could never happen in Germany, whose energy laws and practices dated from the 1930s.

However among the first actions of Ronald Reagan when he was elected was to close SERI (calling it “solar socialism”) and remove the solar panels from the White House.  Germans acquired SERI patents at firesale prices and now the roles are reversed.

Australia is blessed with vast potential for all forms of renewable energy.  Unfortunately we also suffer from the curse of abundant fossil fuels, from a fossil fuel industry that is not shy about promoting its interests, and from politicians who seem to be incapable of thinking beyond tomorrow’s headlines and the next opinion poll.

So Australia remains mired in ignorance, helplessness and pointless bickering while Germany just gets on with creating the new world, and profiting from it.

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4 thoughts on “Impossible, But Those Germans Do It Anyway

  1. PeterJB

    Totally agree with all points; totally.
    Did you know that the highly successful Dung Beetle program was de-funded 20 years ago afters its first success?
    Here in the West, flies blacken the skies and other than being a serious threat to man and beast, create dangerous conditions for welders and fitters carrying out their duties.

    “So Australia remains mired in ignorance, helplessness and pointless bickering ” you omitted, irresponsible, apathetic and incompetent.

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  2. Greig

    The last 3 words are incorrect. Germany’s economy will eventually be negatively impacted by the decision to impart higher higher energy costs on themselves, and rely on imported Russian gas and French nuclear electricity for the bulk of their energy needs. They need to very rapidly change direction. In time, their folly will be recognised and corrected.
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/problems-prompt-germany-to-rethink-energy-revolution-a-852815.html

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  3. Pingback: How a Country With One of the World’s Largest Economies Is Ditching Fossil Fuels The country is headed for 80 percent renewable energy and has complete buy-in from all political parties. So, where is the sustainability Kool-Aid and how can we get so

  4. graemebird

    I think we want every last erg, calorie, or Joule we can get. We want all the renewable gear. But not at the expense of the other stuff. And not through subsidies. Long-term tax exemptions are the way forward here.

    Bear in mind that we can pull unlimited electrical energy directly from the ionosphere if we have a mind to.

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