I visited Berlin a week after President Obama’s reelection, and came away envious of the strategic clarity and political consensus that mark Germany’s new energy strategy. After months of watching Democrats and Republicans bash each other with vacuous and contradictory rhetoric about where our country’s energy future lies, it was refreshing to see that one of our key allies has a plan—and is implementing it.
In 2012, Germany got more than 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, up from 5 percent in 1995 and 10 percent as recently as 2005. Since 1995, the U.S. share of renewable electricity has hardly budged—going from 10 percent to 11.5 percent.) At the same time, Germany has rapidly increased its energy efficiency, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Government plans are even more ambitious—at least 80 percent of the nation’s electricity is to come from renewables in 2050.
Germany’s decision shortly after the 2011 Fukushima disaster to abandon nuclear power while also reducing the use of fossil fuels was greeted with incredulity by many international experts. This, they said, must be a green fantasy, predicting that the Germans would surely fail at their misguided effort—and wind up relying on French nuclear electricity and American coal.
My meetings with experts and officials in Berlin this fall left me with a different conclusion: Germany’s politicians are serious about their “Energiewende”—energy transformation in English—and are in the process of creating a comprehensive energy policy framework to support fulfillment of a transition that is already well underway. And the country’s scientists and engineers have gotten the message; they are making remarkable progress in everything from solar power to energy storage and the development of “smart” digital controls of the national electricity grid.
German citizens also support the new energy strategy. Exiting nuclear power and reducing dependence on fossil fuels are strongly supported across the political spectrum. While there is currently some grumbling about the slightly higher prices that renewable energy requires, this is offset by the fact that renewable energy has created hundreds of thousands of jobs—and is now a larger employer than fossil fuels and nuclear power combined. One result is that many German families and communities have invested directly in wind turbines and solar panels—and are therefore sharing in the economic rewards of their country’s energy transition.
The explosive growth of Germany’s renewable energy sector over the past decade stems not from the richness of its renewable resources, which are mediocre by global standards. Rather, it is the array of carefully tuned policies that have nurtured a new energy economy. The most important of these is the decision to open the electricity grid to all qualified generators—including small businesses, farmers, and individual home owners—and pay them a price that fully reflects the value of the service they are providing. Germany’s electric utility oligopoly has been broken, and entrepreneurs have charged into the breach. The number of power generators has gone from several hundred in 1990 to several hundred thousand today—a thousand-fold increase.
Dozens of countries have begun to adopt the policies that have taken the German energy economy to where it is today. This has already begun to yield substantial progress in nations as diverse as China and Italy, both of which have added substantial amounts of wind and solar power, using laws that are similar to the one enacted by Germany. Success is contagious, and this bug seems to be spreading rapidly, boosted by the fact that Germany’s market has helped drive down the cost of renewable technologies—60 percent in three years in the case of solar panels where Germany has owned over half the global market in recent years. This will make it far easier for others to embark on their own energy transition.
Will the United States be a major player in the unfolding energy transformation? That is the energy challenge for President Obama’s second term.
Chris Flavin is President Emeritus of Worldwatch Institute.