The Great German Energy Transition

When you think of Germany do you picture lederhosen and schnitzel? What about solar panels and wind turbines? The popularity of the latter two has taken off in the past decade so much that the country supplied a quarter of its energy needs with renewable energy last year. For comparison, the United States generated 13 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2011 (that includes hydropower).  

To transform how energy is produced in the country, Germany developed a long term plan embodied in their Energiewende – or energy transition – program. A feature article in Nature by Quirin Schiermeier looks at how Germany is planning to slash greenhouse gases by doubling down on technology and economics. 

As the article notes, by pushing wind and solar, Germany has driven down the cost of renewable energy worldwide. German ratepayers are paying a premium for having a lot of clean energy on the grid, but as such, more than one million houses, farms and warehouses are covered with solar panels. The country’s goal is to have “35% of its electricity from green sources by 2020 ; by 2050, the share is expected to surpass 80%.” In addition to the country’s on-the-ground energy goals, Germany is investing €1.5 billion per year in energy research that attempts to improve the efficiency of solar, wind and biomass technologies and improve efficiency and reduce consumption of energy. 

But the goals of the program are in a precarious position. Cheap natural gas in North America has reduced the demand for coal-fired energy, and that’s allowed Germany to import cheaper coal as the country also moves away from nuclear energy, a shift set in motion in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. There are now plans to build 11 gigawatts of new coal plants in Germany and the existing coal plants aren’t going away anytime soon. 

Furthermore, with the Euro zone in a financial crisis, the popular Energiewende program, with a total price tag of €1 trillion, could soon be on the chopping block. Each German ratepayer sees a ‘shared costs’ section of their bills that funds the energy program which in turn results in some of the highest electricity bills in Europe. And power fluctuations due to either too many or too few renewables producing energy have caused more than 200,000 blackouts that have lasted over three minutes in 2011 alone. But, as Schiermeier notes, the program remains popular with a wide array of the German population and experts suggest that expanded energy storage options and/or a smarter grid could rectify technical issues with the intermittent renewable resources.

The article is a great look at how a single country can drive a global market for clean energy. It’s exciting to see how much clean energy can scale up in a short amount of time, but there are tradeoffs. With so many resources dedicated to potentially game-changing technology, the final question could be: Is Germany the model for fighting climate change, will it fizzle out or… will the Germans just go ahead and save the world by themselves?