In a world facing pressing challenges from climate change and rising carbon emissions, entire countries are becoming laboratories to test potential solutions. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany, where their aggressive plans to address climate change, encoded in the ambitious Energiewende, call to phase out nuclear and carbon-based energy sources and invest in renewable energy sources– such as solar and wind.
What is the Energiewende, and what has it done so far?
The Energiewende is a sweeping plan to transform Germany’s society and its economy using renewable energy. Passed in 2010 in its most recent form – but with social and political roots that stretch back 20 years prior – the Energiewende schedules a complete phase-out of nuclear-generated energy by 2022, an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050, and supports additional investment in renewable technologies such as wind and solar.
The Energiewende has three main components: proliferation of renewable energies, reduction or complete phase-out of nuclear- and carbon-based energy sources, and increased energy efficiency. Germany is well on its way to completing these goals successfully and in a timely fashion. Currently, the first two components are well underway, while early progress has been made toward heightened efficiency. By 2014, 27% of German electricity was generated by renewable sources. Since 2011, Germany has halved its consumption of nuclear energy and shut down nine of its 17 nuclear reactors.
On its surface, the Energiewende appears to be working. It doesn’t mean, however, that the policy isn’t free of critics. Some have vocalized sharp critique, casting doubt on the viability of the energy plan. But do these arguments hold water?
The continuing renewable energy debate
Not everyone is sold on the promises of the Energiewende. Some, like economist Heiner Flassbeck, argue that an energy system primarily supported by wind and solar, without any aid from nuclear sources or fossil fuels, is ultimately not tenable.
Flassbeck’s critique is related to what critics call “the intermittency problem,” that wind and solar don’t always generate electricity at reliable levels. If the renewable sources fail to produce enough energy to meet the nation’s demand, and Germany successfully phases out all nuclear- and carbon-based energy sources, there would be no fallback to generate the additional energy needed. Critics say removing that backup would be a crucial mistake.
However, proponents argue that intermittency can be solved with greater grid connectivity – geographical diversity, they suggest, should often balance out any shortages – and the development of better storage technologies. At present, wind energy must be used as it is generated; if cost-effective storage methods emerge, the intermittency of wind power becomes less of a concern.
In addition, alternative sources have proven themselves to be sufficient. Just last year, German solar power providers generated so much electricity that they actually had to pay to offload it. And while naysayers may declare this the product of a ham-fisted public policy that actually dims the long-term viability of commercial energy production, the fact that there’s enough clean energy production to bring this hypothetical conflict to life, is itself encouraging.
Energiewende critics also raise concern about inflated electricity costs. In Germany, utilities are required by law to pay energy producers that sell back to the grid. Those payments are set at fixed, above-market prices, which utilities pass on to consumers in the form of a surcharge on their electric bill. As a result, German consumers experience higher than average energy costs. In 2016, the surcharge amounted to 22.1%.
In the U.S., consumers pay less per kilowatt hour, a fact favored by critics of Germany’s energy policy. Despite the heightened electricity rates, German consumers are still widely in favor of the Energiewende. More than 80% of respondents of public opinion polls said they were in favor of a low-carbon and nuclear-free economy. Higher energy costs, it seems, do not deter the Germans in their bid for a cleaner energy system.
Toward a viable, national energy
Despite critics’ appeals to hold tight – at least for the time being – to the nuclear- and carbon-based status quo, Germany’s energy efficiency policy is making a compelling case study for a more sustainable model.
The methods may be bold, but they seem to be working. Germany reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 27% and produced 27.4% of its electricity from renewable sources. Renewable energy made up 13.5% of the market as well – all while shuttering nuclear facilities and growing the overall economy by 1.9% (the fastest rate in the G7).
While Germany is phasing out non-renewable energy sources like coal at a slower pace than nuclear energy, the Energiewende is setting the stage for a new system founded on renewable energy technologies. As storage methods improve and proliferate, and distribution networks become more connected, the problem of intermittency should become less and less burdensome – in other words, high-producing regions will be able to support low-producing regions.
While the Energiewende is aggressive bordering on single-minded, it has already demonstrated its viability as an energy system capable of supporting an advanced, forward-thinking economy. Even as the German policy has implemented drastic changes in a relatively short amount of time, the German economy has continued to grow unabated. If the world is serious about combating climate change and meeting the targets of the Paris climate accord, Germany’s Energiewende is a model to emulate, not dismantle.
Pin for later:
Steve Hanley, “Germany Breaks a Solar Record—gets 85% of electricity from renewables,” Cleantechnica.com (May 8, 2017)
Paul Hockenos, “Energiewende—the first four decades,” cleanenergywire.org (June 22, 2015)
Robert Kunzig, “Germany could be a model for how we’ll get power in the future,” National Geographic (November 2015)
World Nuclear Association update, “Germany’s Energiewende,” world-nuclear.org (April 2017)
Heiner Flassbeck, “The End of the Energiewende?” energypost.eu (January 10, 2017)
Christine Sturm, “Germany’s Energiewende: The intermittency problem remains,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, thebulletin.org, (May 20, 2016)
Jon Rabinowitz, “German Innovation in CleanTech and Legislation,” panpwr.com, (March 20, 2017)
Richard Martin, “Germany Runs Up Against the Limits of Renewables,” MIT Technology Review, technologyreview.com, (May 24, 2016)
“What has gone wrong with Germany’s energy policy?” economist.com (December 14, 2015)
Soren Amelang and Julian Wettengel, “Polls reveal citizens’ support for Energiewende,” fact sheet, cleanenergywire.org (May 19, 2017)
Angela Monaghan and Graeme Wearden, “Germany overtakes UK as fastest growing G7 economy,” theguardian.com (February 23, 2017)