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Germany Has Built Clean Energy Economy That U.S. Rejected 30 Years Ago
Osha Gray Davidson, Inside Climate News
This is an excerpt from the first chapter of the e-book Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It by Osha Gray Davidson.
The view from the Reichstag roof on a sun-drenched spring afternoon is spectacular. Looking out over Berlin from the seat of the German government, you can see the full sweep of the nation’s history: from Humboldt University, where Albert Einstein taught physics for two decades, to the site of the former Gestapo headquarters.
I’m not here to see this country’s freighted past, however. I’ve come to learn about what a majority of Germans believe is their future—and perhaps our own. There is no better place to begin this adventure than the Reichstag, rebuilt from near ruins in 1999 and now both a symbol and an example of the revolutionary movement known as the Energiewende. The word translates simply as, "energy change." But there’s nothing simple about the Energiewende. It calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and embraces clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The government has set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but many Germans I spoke with in three weeks traveling across this country believe 100 percent renewable power is achievable by then.
Such a massive power shift may sound impossible to those of us from the United States, where giant oil and coal corporations control the energy industry and the very idea of human-caused climate change is still hotly contested. Here in Germany, that debate is long over. A dozen years of growing public support have driven all major political parties to endorse the Energiewende. If a member of parliament called climate change a hoax or said that its cause is unknown, he or she would be laughed out of office.
"The fight now, to the extent that there is one, is over the speed of the transition," Jens Kendzia told me as we stood on the Reichstag roof. Kendzia is chief of staff for a leader of the center-left Green Party, which crafted the legislation responsible for the Energiewende’s success.
In an interview later that day, Dr. Joachim Pfeiffer, a leading spokesman for the center-right Christian Democrats, boasted about the Energiewende’s progress under his party.
"We’ll definitely get to 35 percent renewable power by 2020," he said, referring to the next official target. "In fact, we’ll probably reach 40 percent."
(13 November 2012)
Further chapters are published at insideclimatenews.org.
Image credit: -AX-/flickr
The German nuclear exit: Introduction
John Mecklin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Shortly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government abruptly reversed its policy on nuclear energy, deciding to phase out the country’s nuclear industry entirely by 2022. Despite the seriousness of the situation in Japan, the German decision—which shuttered eight reactors almost immediately and set staggered deadlines for nine remaining nuclear plants to close—was met with no small amount of international incredulity. Among other things, the phase-out was widely criticized as an exercise in panic politics, and, as Alex Glaser writes in this special issue of the Bulletin—“The German nuclear exit”—the news headlines were sometimes vitriolic. (The business website Forbes.com probably won top honors in the hyperbole sweepstakes with this nuanced take: “Germany—Insane or Just Plain Stupid?”) Outside Germany, major media outlets continue to question the wisdom of the phase-out, often with emphasis on its climate change implications. At a time when greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, the critics wonder: How could any country casually give up such a huge investment in emission-free energy?
The German decision to pursue a nuclear-free future was, however, anything but precipitous or unmindful of climate change. Because of a combination of historical and political factors, Germany has in fact been retreating from the nuclear sector for decades— and from its beginnings, the nuclear phase-out was intimately tied to what is known as the Energiewende, an aggressive, comprehensive turnabout in policy that aims for a national energy portfolio dominated by renewables. For “The German nuclear exit,” the Bulletin asked leading experts to explore the phase-out and Energiewende along historical, political, economic, environmental, and legal dimensions and, in so doing, to give some assessment of the progress made (and likely to be made) toward a nuclear-free, renewables-heavy energy supply. What these authors report is not of course uniform or entirely positive, but they do seem to converge on a theme: In part because the nuclear phase-out and Energiewende are based on serious long-term planning and broad political consensus, the German energy experiment has met with promising early success
In his overview article, “From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out,” Glaser, a Princeton researcher and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, sets the historical context for the shutdown, reviewing the massive, civil-war-like confrontations between anti-nuclear demonstrators and police that started in the 1970s, and notes that, “because of these and subsequent developments—including the 1986 Chernobyl accident—by the 1990s, no one in German political life seriously entertained the idea of new reactor construction.” Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs’s essay, “The politics of phase-out,” offers a surprising explanation for continuing popular support for the phase-out across the German political spectrum: The shift to renewable energy sources that accompanies the phase-out has brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small- and medium-sized businesses. Marshaling a wide range of observed data and predictive economic models, Felix Matthes, research coordinator at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin, reaches another unexpected conclusion: The nuclear phase-out is likely to have only a small and temporary effect on electricity prices and the overall German economy. The phase-out also seems unlikely to come with a huge legal bill. As University of Kassel legal experts Alexander Rossnagel and Anja Hentschel explain in “The legalities of a nuclear shutdown,” during early negotiations, the government shaped the phase-out so it gave utilities time to recoup their investments in nuclear power plants, thereby undercutting their ability to successfully sue later for damages. And Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universität Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all. The Energiewende that is being pursued in parallel with the German nuclear exit has reached a climate change milestone, Mez writes: “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”
“The German nuclear exit” is the first in a three-part Bulletin series that will also look at the implications of potential phase-outs of civilian nuclear power in France and the United States. The expert essays that make up this installment of the series are hardly one-sided; they are full of acknowledgements of the difficulties Germany faces as it ends its nuclear power era and strives to reach aggressive greenhouse gas-emissions targets. But the articles make clear that the nuclear phase-out and accompanying Energiewende are not—international media characterizations notwithstanding—capricious political reactions; in fact, they are carefully planned national initiatives that are based on a rational calculation that they will ultimately benefit Germany environmentally and financially. Glaser may sum up the global import of the German energy experiment best when he writes: “Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, is likely to become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.”
Find the other articles in the German nuclear exit issue (November/December 2012) here.