Prof. Christoph Stefes - Source: Ecologic Institute

Germany often sets the example in the renewable energy policy field. Last week, the tradition continued as Professor Christoph Stefes from the University of Colorado at Denver and the Ecologic Institute in Berlin, and Professor Frank Laird from the University of Denver, praised German policies during a presentation at Ecologic’s Washington office. Their message was clear: Germany’s renewable power generation is skyrocketing while the U.S.’s stagnates.

This hasn’t always been the case. Prior to 1990, renewables followed similar paths in Germany and the United States. Yet Germany was able to make good use of a window of opportunity that opened up in 1990–92, while the U.S. stumbled. During this period, not only did renewable energy sources gain more credit and public support following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, but Germany’s political system also faced an upheaval due to the nation’s reunification.

The result of this divergence in paths is now obvious. In absolute terms, U.S. total renewable power capacity in 2009 was greater than Germany’s (52 and 42 gigawatts, respectively, excluding large hydropower). However, renewables represented only 8 percent of the total U.S. energy supply, and only  2.5 percent if hydropower is excluded. By contrast, Germany had a 10.3 percent share of renewable energy in its final gross energy consumption (including hydropower). And while the United States has few long-term federal renewables goals (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 contains several short-term targets), Germany aims to further boost its renewables share in its final gross energy consumption to 30 percent by 2030, and be 50 percent of its electricity generation within the same time period.

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energy, energy policy, energy security, feed-in tariffs, Germany, green jobs, lobbying, renewable energy, USA

Before coming to DC to witness climate and energy discussions, I had been warned, of course, that big business is trying to protect its interests and the status quo while undermining progressive regulations, like elsewhere in the world. But I was also looking forward to a strong other side of the debate in this city – creative politicians and innovative businesses bubbling over with new ideas, trying to shape the energy future. To be frank, during my first week in the U.S., I saw a heavy representation of the former overshadowing much of the latter.

A case in point was the Climate Change Conference 2009 by the CQ-Roll Call Group at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Tuesday, October 20, at which senators, business representatives and other stakeholders debated climate policies and possible solutions for the energy sector. With only a few exceptions, two paradigms were particularly prevalent in the discussion. The first one sounded something like this: ”We need to continue using coal and capture and store the emissions, although this is going to be very expensive, we do not know when technology will become available and whether it will be safe.” The second one went along the lines of ”We should use nuclear energy even though it is expensive and risky and nobody wants it in their backyard.” Following these paradigms, climate legislation of course seems like maybe a necessary, but definitely unpleasant, burden. Following these paradigms also means failing to see the opportunities in climate change mitigation and changing the way we produce and consume energy.

david-and-goliath-sumos2[1] Why should it be so obvious that America has to rely on coal? Just because the resource is domestically available? And why should citizens bear the enormous direct and external costs of nuclear energy? Just because it provides constant output, so called ”baseload-energy” (unless there is a maintenance problem?) Renewable energy resources are abundant in the country, too. The technologies are readily available today and further progressing rapidly – and they come without destructive mining practices, cause virtually no emissions, and do not require expensive and potentially unsafe end-of-pipe carbon capture and storage technologies. At the same time, energy efficiency technologies and savings measures can slash the need for power, heat, and transport fuels, while cutting costs and creating jobs (see for example the Greenpeace/EREC Energy [R]evolution Scenario for the United States.)

A cost-effective and efficient renewable energy supply would in fact move away from inflexible “baseload” production. Instead, it would balance various renewable energy sources against each other and across regions, while at the same time using sustainable biogas or concentrated solar thermal power (which can be ramped up and down as needed), storage technologies liked pumped hydropower storage and smart demand-side management to provide robust and reliable supplies. This, of course, would require businesses and politicians to think beyond just adding an expensive end-of-pipe technology or trying to revive a technology that, for good reasons, nobody has volunteered to invest in for decades here (the last U.S. nuclear power plants were ordered in the 1970s.) And it presupposes that the strong representation of backward-looking industry does not drown innovative and truly sustainable developments in the United States.

As for my second week in DC, my wish is simple:  Creative politicians and innovative businesses, enter the spotlight!

carbon capture and storage, coal, lobbying, nucular energy, washington dc