What Americans Don’t Get About Germany’s Renewable Energy Revolution
American views on Germany’s commitment to renewable energy sources tend to misunderstand the transition’s political, economic, and historical underpinnings. Where does this misunderstanding come from? The American journalist, Paul Hockenos, takes a look.
Trying to explain Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, to non-Germans is an exasperating task. Americans in particular are deeply skeptical, if not outrightly dismissive of Germany’s in-progress switch to non-nuclear, clean energy. Whether one is convinced or not of its sense, there is a host of misinformation in the air that causes Americans to see the project as a naïve farce rather than a ground-breaking experiment that will certainly have wide-ranging implications for U.S. energy policies.
In short, Germany is revamping its energy sector and indeed its whole economy to run on zero-carbon energy, while at the same time it kicks the nuclear habit and meets ambitious EU climate targets. This transformation is an enormous undertaking – often compared in size to the country’s postwar reconstruction. Moreover, it is completely uncharted territory. No other country, much less an industrial powerhouse like Germany, has ever endeavored to go completely renewable – and indeed its success is in no way assured.
Yet, why is it that in the U.S., regardless of my interlocutor’s politics, I consistently run into such a wall of incomprehension when trying to explain it?
Firstly, there’s the misconception that Germany’s transition to renewable energies is one giant government program, something dreamt up in the halls of power, funded with masses of taxpayer monies, and implemented by a single ministry or agency. Many tend to see the energy transition through the lens of the U.S. government’s subsidy of the U.S. solar industry, but on a much bigger scale. The Energiewende is a massively subsidized colossus, so goes the line, and doomed to fail just like Solyndra did.
In fact, the impetus for Germany’s clean energy revolution came not from above, but from a mass, grassroots movement that started up in the mid-1970s. Today the transition has broad popular support – up to 93 percent according to a December 2012 poll – and powerful industrial, political, and environmental lobbies. Moreover, the lion’s share of investment in solar PV modules, wind turbines, and bioenergy plants has come from homeowners, farmers, local collectives, and small-to-medium size businesses – and relatively little from large corporations (and nothing from the government). By turning over a million property owners and entrepreneurs into energy producers Germany has increased its supply of renewably generated electricity from 4 percent to 23 percent in just 13 years’ time.
Although there were initially modest subsidy programs, the mechanism responsible for the renewables boom is an incentive (called the feed-in tariff) that energy consumers end up paying in their utility bills. It costs the average family of four roughly $150 a year. The state actually profits enormously from the taxable revenue of the booming renewable energy industry, which has an annual turnover of €8.7 billion ($11.6 billion). The dynamic that was set in motion over the last two decades was greatly accelerated by public policies, but the Energiewende is a sweeping, societal project that cannot simply be “cut” by Chancellor Merkel or anyone else.
The second basic misunderstanding is that a misplaced utopianism drives the project. In other words: it’s a lot of naïve tree-huggers who have dreamed up an idea that puts wishful thinking before reality. When I told a former editor of mine from the West Coast about the Energiewende she mused, “I think some American Greens might be interested in this.”
Comments like this stem from the belief that the Energiewende is first and foremost a green-minded, moral crusade. Yet it is far from the truth, even if there is a lot of idealism in it. Although motivations vary, the profit motive is a main driver – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The renewables industry (it employs 386,000 people) and the new leagues of energy producers are now the powerful force behind it, with vested economic interests. Take the deeply conservative farmers in Bavaria who cover their barns with solar panels; it’s not green fantasies that motivate them, according to surveys, but rather keeping value in their own hands and that of the community. They save dramatically on energy bills and make money, too, by selling surplus to utilities.
Surely this appeals to the free-enterprise sensibility in the U.S.? Nope, it’s beards and Birkenstocks Americans see before their eyes, not the politically conservative, German upper middle-class.
The third red herring is a pejorative stereotype about modern Germans, namely that they’re an easily panicked folk still hopelessly traumatized from World War II. (This was also trotted out to explain West Germans’ opposition to intermediate-range U.S. nuclear missiles in the early 1980s, which makes it easy to recycle.) “Panic” is exactly the word that appeared across the Internet and in the U.S. media about the Merkel’s post-Fukushima u-turn on nuclear energy. A “panic reaction,” an “irrational,” “knee-jerk” response to the Fukushima disaster in spring 2011: the Energiewende is a result of “hysteria,” not science, goes the argument.
The fact that Merkel is herself a physicist doesn’t sway these voices. The angst-ridden Germans are a “special case” and thus their Sonderwege, so goes the arguments, aren’t models for anybody – then or now. (Americans aren’t the only ones who say this. Many Europeans, too, think Merkel overreacted.)
In fact, Germans in general are remarkably well-informed about energy issues, and about nuclear in particular. The passing of Chernobyl’s air-borne radioactivity over northern Europe in 1986 provoked a sophisticated, evidence-based discussion in the years that followed. The vast majority of Germans concluded that nuclear power is dangerous; there is no solution for nuclear waste; and renewables are a viable alternative. That’s the argument in a nutshell.
Indeed, the whole nuclear energy issue is hugely important to the way Americans view Germany’s energy transition. Even American leftists, including the Obama administration, tend to be pro-nuclear. In particular, many Americans who actually believe that global warming is real tend to be particularly pro-nuclear, seeing it as a legitimate zero-carbon alternative. Obama’s nuclear convictions have reinforced these attitudes. The Obama administration has tripled loans for, in Obama’s words, “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country”. He also has a physicist in his administration, namely energy secretary Steven Chu, who is a full-throated proponent of nuclear.
Thus the sense of making climate goals all that much harder to reach by dropping nuclear but not coal simply doesn’t add up to many non-Germans. It makes the German experiment all the more precarious, and thus a non-starter for many U.S. liberals, too.
Germany’s Energiewende is a complex undertaking. No one today knows where it will land the country in 20 years’ time. If it succeeds, Germany will have an enviable energy security and a highly attractive place to live and run a business, where energy costs will be negligible and the air clear. Whatever its outcome though, it has to be taken seriously as a bold experiment that will help every country determine what its energy sources of the future will be.