Transforming Transatlantic Power Systems

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.

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.

Source: BMU

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included several incentives for clean energy projects that led to a demand surge for renewable energy. Moreover, U.S. states enjoy great autonomy in regulating power markets and can therefore move ahead in the absence of a federal clean energy strategy. This has led several states to implement progressive measures such as renewable energy portfolio standards, or obligatory energy efficiency improvements that are comparable to efforts of some European countries.

The transformation of power systems is a global challenge that we need to master if the most dangerous consequences of climate change are to be avoided. Frontrunner countries need to communicate their experiences to encourage the adoption of similar strategies elsewhere. However, rather than partnering in their efforts, misconceptions and reservations on both sides of the Atlantic currently shape the U.S.-German relationship.

In the U.S., the German nuclear phase-out is equated with an alleged renaissance of coal power. However, this view fails to look beyond developments that will, in all likelihood, be short-lived. Climate and renewable energy targets leave no room for fossil fuels in the long-term and will ensure a withdrawal from coal power. Nonetheless, the government’s management of the transition is critically debated within Germany. For example, the slow progress in renewing the country’s transmission lines and finding cost-effective options for electricity storage remain a concern. Many U.S. states face similar problems.  A closer look across the Atlantic can help in finding innovative solutions.

European critics are similarly quick to conclusions and chastise the United States for its lack of a comprehensive federal clean energy strategy, disregarding successful bottom-up efforts in U.S. states. From 2007 to 2012, U.S. energy-related emissions declined 13 percent, much more than in any other industrialized country. Moreover, renewables have jumped from 6.4 percent to 9.4 percent of total energy consumption. While more U.S. ambition is still needed to adequately address the threats of climate change, Europeans should regard these fast-changing circumstances in the energy sector as an opportunity to advance common interests.

Worldwatch is therefore launching its new ReVolt series “Transforming Transatlantic Power Systems” to strengthen the international dialogue on transitioning to clean energy systems, communicate respective efforts, and learn from best-practices.  The goal of the blog series is to regularly report on energy developments on both sides of the Atlantic, address common myths misrepresenting respective efforts, and to encourage finding solutions to common problems, such as electricity storage, smart grid infrastructure, and the role of natural gas in the transition to a carbon-free electricity sector.

Michael Weber is the Research Coordinator for the Climate & Energy team at Worldwatch Institute. 

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