Germany has seen success with solar power, despite having about the equivalent solar resource of Alaska. The U.S. contains vast solar resources, but could use more federal policies to utilize this renewable resource. Trans-Atlantic collaboration could boost the transition to sustainable energy systems on both sides of the Pond. (Source: German-American Chambers of Commerce)
The U.S. and Germany are obligated, as two of the largest economies and historic emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, to lead the global transition to cleaner power systems. Their success or failure in transforming energy systems has immense global signaling effects. Closer cooperation in this innovative sector could revamp a faltering historic partnership.
Germany’s chosen path to a clean energy future is ambitious and unprecedented amongst industrialized countries. The government passed a series of measures in 2011 to simultaneously move away from fossil fuels and phase out nuclear power. Renewable energy is to become the backbone of the country’s energy system – at least 60 percent of the nation’s primary energy consumption and 80 percent of electricity are to come from renewables in 2050. Meanwhile, the last nuclear reactor is to be shut down in 2022. (See the table below for an overview of German energy policy goals).
The country is already a leader in renewable energies. Few countries have a greater installed per capita capacity of renewables, excluding hydropower, than does Germany. Moreover, the government also envisions energy efficiency to be a key component in enabling the clean energy transition. Germany aims to reduce primary energy consumption by 50 percent by 2050 and increase energy productivity, or the GDP produced per unit of energy, by 2.1 percent per year.
The U.S. trails German ambition and lacks a federal clean energy strategy, but is nonetheless one of the most important and dynamic renewable energy markets in the world. As of the end of 2011, the U.S. led the world in installed biomass and geothermal power capacity, ranked second in total installed renewable power as well as wind power capacity, third in hydropower, and fifth in solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity. While total emissions in the U.S. have historically been higher than most other countries, no other country has seen a larger drop in energy-related greenhouse gas emissions over the past five years. Shifts from coal to natural gas in the power sector, as well as fuel efficiency improvements in the transportation sector, are the main reason for this reduction, but growing investments in renewable energies also contributed to this positive trend.
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.
Despite having a relatively weak solar resource, strong domestic policy has enabled Germany to dominate the global solar PV market (Source: REN21).
Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of an unprecedented catastrophe that struck northern Japan. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami—triggered by a major earthquake—swept into the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, disabling the cooling capabilities of three of the plant’s oldest reactors. In the days and weeks that followed, as workers struggled to cool and dismantle the plant, reactors 1, 2, and 3 went into meltdown. A series of explosions and fires led to the release of radioactive gas, and fears of contamination ultimately prompted the evacuation of approximately 100,000 people from the immediate area; some 30,000 may never be able to return to their homes.
The Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, 25 March 2011 (Source: econews)
The first anniversary of this horrific event—the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986—is a time to commemorate the more than 20,000 people who died in the initial earthquake and tsunami, as well as the courage of those who risked radioactive exposure to regain control of the plant and prevent further calamity. But it is also a time to look forward—to examine what we have learned from Fukushima and what it means for the future of energy in Japan and around the world.
A “moment of opportunity” for Japan
In the aftermath of the meltdown, the Japanese public turned decidedly against nuclear power, marking a pronounced change in a nation that was once one of the world’s most committed proponents and producers of civilian atomic energy. Japan has been using nuclear power since the 1960s, and in 2010 it generated 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. In the past year, however, the vast majority of nuclear facilities in Japan have been shut down for routine maintenance or “stress tests” and have not yet been reopened. Today, all but two of Japan’s commercial reactors have been shut down, with the last one scheduled to go offline as early as April. The country has also abandoned any existing plans to build new reactors.
This coming weekend (January 14–15), Peace Boat and five other international non-governmental organizations will host the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohoma, Japan. The event was organized in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
An image of the Biblis nuclear power, one of the nuclear power plants permanently shutdown in Germany shortly after the events at Fukushima (Source: The Open University).
The overarching goal of the conference is to facilitate discussion of a nuclear power free world. Regional and international experts, activists, and people affected by radiation exposure from nuclear power plants will come together to generate a roadmap promoting the decommissioning of these facilities worldwide. Participants will discuss policies that support renewable energy over nuclear energy and create action plans for implementing these policies in Japan and other countries that depend heavily on nuclear.
Yesterday, the Worldwatch Institute joined Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (or REN21), and a panel of energy experts to celebrate the launch of Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, an integrated analysis of the state of renewable energy around the world. First published in 2005, REN21’s annual report has since become the most heavily cited analysis of renewable energy business and policy.
According to Alexander Ochs, event moderator and Director of Climate and Energy at the Worldwatch Institute, renewable energy today already accounts for about 25 percent of total global power capacity and 20 percent of actual electricity production, percentages that continue to grow quickly. Over the five-year period from the end of 2005 through 2010, total capacity of many technologies including wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass grew at rates averaging 15 - 50 percent per year. Total global capacity of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2010 was up as much as 72 percent from just the year before. Little noticed, approximately half of the estimated 194 gigawatts (GW) of new power capacity that was added globally in 2010 were renewables.
Last week I invited Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), to Worldwatch for an informal dialogue with the staff. In addition to his leadership of DIE, Dirk is a professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen as well as Vice-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). As a leading expert in the fields of development policy, environmental policy, and global governance, he plays a vital role in addressing key policy and sustainability challenges, as well as advancing the discourse surrounding climate and energy policy.
Like Worldwatch, Dirk is currently struggling with the question of how to facilitate an effective transition to a green global economy, particularly under the impact of shifting demographics. While transatlantic institutions have traditionally led international cooperative efforts including on the environment, the rapid ascendance of emerging economies like China and India has fundamentally shifted both actual diplomacy and the intellectual dialogue about it (the New York Times just today published an article on the United States’ waning influence on the global economy). Dirk outlined several key areas of inquiry regarding this shift including its implications for sustainability, poverty alleviation, security, and democracy. Several recent developments have contributed to this changing landscape of international development and sustainability efforts.
While U.S. policymakers remain hesitant to contemplate the transition to a low-carbon economy, Germany’s energy transition is already under way. At two Washington, D.C. events on Monday, October 3 (Germany’s Unity Day holiday), Franz Untersteller, Environment Minister for the German State of Baden-Württemberg, discussed his country’s efforts to phase out nuclear power and heavily promote renewable energy in the coming decades. Germany’s decision this spring to phase out nuclear energy by 2020 has been regarded as a controversial path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change. At a panel titled Leading the Way or Lights Out? Germany’s Nuclear Exit and U.S. Energy Perspectives held at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS), Minister Untersteller described how Germany plans to achieve both the nuclear phase-out and the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Minister Untersteller has been Environment Minister of the State of Baden-Württemberg in the Green-Social Democratic government since the March 2011 regional elections. Baden-Württemberg is a highly industrialized German state that is home to global industrial players such as Mercedes, Porsche, and Bosch. The region could serve as a model for other very industrialized areas in showing how high energy intensity can be combined with CO2 emissions reductions. Untersteller described the German government’s nuclear exit strategy as “irreversible,” not just because the amendments to the Nuclear Energy Act were supported by an agreement of all parties in the German Bundestag, but also because the strategy is based on broad popular consensus. The nuclear phase-out by 2020 is accompanied by several other elements:
A substantial rise in the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix, projected to reach 38 percent of the national electricity supply by 2020, compared to 20 percent today and 6 percent in 2000;
The construction and use of flexible natural gas power plants;
Infrastructure adaptation, especially high investment in the electric power grid; and
Increase in energy efficiency, including a further decoupling of energy use from economic growth.
(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.
Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.
The ability to store energy efficiently and cheaply would solve one of renewable energy’s greatest challenges. Many renewable resources, such as wind and solar, cannot provide steady energy output. This represents a challenge to distribution networks, which have been designed to be fed with a steady electricity supply from centralized power plants but which encounter problems when supply fluctuates.
From Renewable Energy to Methane - The Process explained
Energy storage would allow dispatchers to “flatten” power peaks and “fill” gaps that occur with use of renewable energy. In reality, this means that electricity is stored when too much of it is produced, and consumed later when not enough power is available.
At a May 11 event in Washington, D.C. cohosted by the German Embassy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, panelists discussed the differences in how Germany and the United States deal with their municipal solid waste (MSW). Germany, which created a national ban on landfilling MSW without pre-treatment in 2005, sent only 1 percent of its MSW to landfills in 2007. Sixty-four percent of Germany’s waste was recycled or composted, and the remaining 35 percent was incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. The United States, on the other hand, landfills 69 percent of its MSW, recycling only 24 percent and using 7 percent for WTE.
At first glance, WTE would seem to be a win-win. It involves incinerating MSW to run a turbine and produce electricity. WTE reduces the amount of space needed for landfills by 90 percent, prevents the expenditure involved with procuring fossil fuels and disposing of MSW, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding methane emissions from landfills and replacing fossil fuel consumption in waste transport and electricity production.
But WTE has many opponents, for a wide variety of reasons. Some object to the high costs. In the United States especially, with so much unused land, landfilling is cheap and the economics of any alternative are not good. Other critics worry about local air pollution or simply don’t want an industrial facility that deals in garbage near their homes or businesses. And some see WTE as taking attention and urgency away from recycling and composting (a better method of dealing with waste) and therefore believe it does more harm than good. This post will look deeper into this last claim.