Blog 57. Energiewende – We should try it

Energiewende is the appellation for Germany’s transition toward a sustainable energy supply.  George Maue, first secretary for energy and climate at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., described the transition in his editorial published in the Nov-Dec 2013 issue of Solar Today magazine.  Energiewende is a plan, developed through long-term studies, for attaining a stable sustainable energy supply, including doubling efficiency and meeting demand with mostly renewable energy sources.  The editorial made me wonder—does the U.S. have a secretary for energy and climate in any of our embassies?  What would happen if an American ambassador published an editorial in a renewable energy magazine?

Maue described the German Renewable Energy Act of 2000, which specifies grid priority and fixed feed-in tariffs (FiTs)for all producers of electricity from renewable resources.  For example, such a grid priority would guarantee that you could feed electricity from your rooftop photovoltaic generator into the electrical grid, and the FiT would guarantee the amount of revenue to you.  Maue says Germany’s fraction of green electricity increased from 6% when the act was introduced to 23% 2012.  Of course, the Germans have motivation for promoting sustainable energy, inasmuch as the Germans currently import 70% of their energy consumption.

This committed approach to a secure, sustainable energy future has costs.  German customers (except selected industries) pay a controversial surcharge for renewable energy—up to 7cents per kilowatt-hour.  (For comparison, the residential electric rate where I live is 10 cents per kWh with a voluntary limited green surcharge of 5 cents.)

What’s new, Maue says, is that to ease the costs and to reduce the flow of electricity on the grid, a new measure was introduced to support batteries at specific new solar-electric installations, so the mid-day peak of solar electricity need not be instantly pushed into the grid, but can be later consumed on-site.

The point of this is to note that the Germans are making gradual, determined progress toward renewable energy, whereas the U.S. has made only sporadic progress with fluctuating government and social commitment.  For example, the U.S. passed the Solar Heating and Cooling Act of 1975, which demanded immediate demonstration of solar technologies in buildings. The premature demonstrations failed, and most of the government-supported effort was phased out by 1986 despite the fact that climate-sensitive buildings and solar equipment can work.  New large solar-electric plants have been recently coming on line, but the utilities and fossil-fuel companies are erecting regulatory barriers. They’ve halted all federal legislative action on climate and energy efficiency, and are working against state action on renewable requirements, net metering, and distributed storage.  On April 26, The New York Times presented an editorial on the Koch brothers‘ (and other “Big Carbon” advocates’) attack on incentives for renewable energy, such as allowing homeowners to sell power back to the utilities.  All this ignores the fact that solar energy makes jobs—146,698 jobs in 2013, about 20% more than the previous year.

America the argumentative

Why can’t Americans agree on what’s needed and commit to achieving it?  Part of the answer is our diversity.  As my Norwegian friend observed, “America is not a country, it’s a continent,” meaning each state approaches a problem from its own narrow objective, its own narrow prejudice.  Another Norwegian friend observed, “America doesn’t have elections.  Every four years it has a revolution.”  True, we went from legislating solar energy demonstrations in 1975 to the Reagan administration’s statement that “there is no energy problem the private industry can’t solve” in less than ten years.  We can’t even agree not to spend our nation into bankruptcy, although money is the strongest force in legislation and politics.

It’s time to take a steady approach regarding energy— and other things, too.