My wife and I decided several years ago to spend a year living in Germany. I wanted finally to become fluent in German, after having been married for many years to a German engineer.
I was also interested in learning about the materials, methods, and systems being used to make buildings more energy-efficient in Germany. We knew it would be educational for our two daughters to be immersed in a foreign culture, and we looked forward to spending more time with my wife’s family in Germany.
We are now about six weeks into what will likely be a year-long adventure. I’ve started a blog to share with family and friends some of the experiences we are having in Berlin. I have also been posting information related to construction and energy efficiency.
A nation tries to lower its carbon emissions
I have seen numerous newspaper and magazine articles in the past few weeks focused on the allegedly high cost to the German people of the country’s ambitious plan to restructure its energy systems. These articles have not been confined to Germany; they have also appeared in outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times.
Der Spiegel is a weekly German news magazine whose gravitas I might have placed somewhere between Newsweek and The Economist. However, a recent cover story about Germany’s “Energiewende” — an article which exemplifies the strained tone of other recent articles — did not strike me as particularly impartial or objective.
Energiewende translates literally as “energy turn,” but it is more typically expressed as “energy transition,” “energy transformation,” or “energy revolution.” This program has its roots in the environmental movement that formed during the 1970s in Germany. In 2011, the German government formalized the Energiewende in its current configuration with the goal of achieving specific energy-related and carbon-reduction goals within the next forty years.
These goals include:
A serious attempt at achieving these goals will require increasing the energy efficiency of all market sectors (housing, transportation, industry, etc.), dramatically expanding the use of renewable energy, and shifting energy-related attitudes and behaviors to a new paradigm.
One of my motivations for spending a year in Germany was to learn more about the Energiewende — to dig more deeply into the program specifics, and to find out how it is working.
In Germany, the cost of electricity is rising
The cover of a recent issue of Der Spiegel caught my eye: “Luxury Power — Why energy will become increasingly costly, and what politicians must do to prevent it.” Aha, I thought: Germany has generally been the poster-child for the broad implementation of renewable power, and this article will provide insights into the downside of this transformation.
The article certainly does lambaste many aspects of the Energiewende, focusing particularly on the relatively high cost of electricity. But the sensational language employed and the apparent lack of context for some of the assertions had me wondering about the article’s balance.
There’s no doubt that the German government’s support for the development of renewable energy — particularly wind turbines and photovoltaic systems — has been expensive. These costs appear as a surcharge in the monthly electricity bills that most Germans pay. The article contends that this surcharge disproportionately penalizes low- and fixed-income citizens, who are, according to the article, increasingly at risk of having their electricity cut off.
The German government’s energy regulations were designed to exempt businesses and industries that compete internationally from having to pay the electricity surcharge. This exemption represents a potential loophole that some businesses have exploited. It also increases the cost of power for those businesses that do not qualify.
Renewable energy sources require grid improvements
The article contends that the main driver of increased electricity costs is the “haphazard” expansion of wind and solar energy. It describes the difficulties in bringing off-shore wind parks cost-effectively into operation, the need to upgrade the grid to transport energy from where it is produced to where it is needed, and the challenges posed by providing reliable back-up power during periods of peak demand.
The article points out the uncomfortable fact that Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 2% in 2012. This was presumably the result of the shut-down of eight aging nuclear power plants in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the resultant need for Germany to use lignite coal-fired plants to pick up the slack.
The article concludes that Germany might be better off with a system based on market-driven incentives, similar to that which has been enacted in Sweden, rather than relying so heavily on government support.
These critiques all have some merit, but reasonable arguments can be made in defense of the Energiewende’s policies and their implementation. Cogent responses to the concerns raised in this article can be found in in various articles available on the web, including in the publication “Energy Transition — the German Energiewende,” produced by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Chapter 6, Questions and Answers, addresses head-on many of the issues raised in the Der Spiegel article.
Replacing fossil fuels with energy efficiency
The Der Speigel article’s most significant omission, in my opinion, relates to efforts to reduce demand for energy. Energy efficiency is a cornerstone of the Energiewende, yet it is hardly mentioned in the article. Wind generators and solar panels lend themselves to simplistic critiques; insulating existing buildings and installing better building control systems are not attention-grabbing subjects. My understanding is that Germany is making steady progress in the arena of energy efficiency, but that there remains tremendous potential for additional gains.
What was most striking to me about the article in Der Spiegel is that it does not fundamentally question the need for an Energy Transformation; rather, it argues that the current path is flawed, and that alternatives should be explored. Public opinion polls in Germany consistently show broad support for the goals of the Energiewende. Coming from the U.S., a country that lacks a comprehensive, coherent energy policy, I am inspired to see people here in Germany debating the “how,” rather than the “what” or the “why.”
Andrew Dey’s background includes carpentry, contracting, and project management. For the past six years he has provided construction consulting services to clients in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. He is passionate about retrofitting existing buildings — including his own house — for greater energy efficiency. His blog is called Snapshots from Berlin.