Zingst, Germany—"What an eyesore, huh?" the man standing next to me on the beach said, nodding in the direction of a little girl flying a kite. The man, in his mid-40s, seemed to enjoy my confusion. He waited a beat before pointing beyond the girl, far out into the Baltic Sea. "There," he said, smiling to make sure I understood his sarcasm. "The 'ugly' wind farm."
Staring hard, it was barely possible to make out the turbines on the horizon. Ten miles from shore, the Baltic 1 Wind Farm seemed as small and insubstantial as the scruffy grass along the coast. But, in fact, each of the nearly two dozen turbines is as tall as a 27-story building and has fiberglass epoxy blades nearly 150 feet long. Work has already begun on wind farms with even larger turbines that will generate twice the power of those at Baltic 1, enough to supply 250,000 households with electricity.
Wind turbines produce 10 times more electricity in Germany today than they did in 1999. What's even more remarkable is that this expansion is modest compared to the growth of solar power. In 1999, Germany had an installed solar capacity of 32 megawatts. In 2012, that figure was 30,000 megawatts—a nearly 1,000-fold increase in a nation that gets roughly as much sunlight as Alaska. On a sunny day that's as much electricity as 13 nuclear power plants would produce.
Berlin, Germany—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.
This is Chapter 1 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. You can read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
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.
Oil drilling has sparked a frenzied prosperity in Jeff Keller's formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving moribund local businesses.
But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen a more ominous effect of the boom, too: Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.
Hydraulic fracturing—the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling —is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota, triggering a turnaround not only in the state's fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.
The downside is waste—lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn't making it that far.
As debate over the future of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline continues to boil in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, energy companies are proceeding with many other pipeline projects that would give large amounts of Canadian crude access to foreign markets within the next five years.
InsideClimate News compiled a map and list showing industry's planned expansion. We discovered that there are more than 10,000 miles of pipelines planned to send an additional 3.1 million barrels a day of Alberta's oil to export markets, at a cost to build of almost $40 billion.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever national air pollution regulations for fracking on Wednesday. First proposed in July 2011, the final rules have been welcomed by environmental groups as a much-needed initial move in reducing pollution and protecting public health from the toxic chemicals involved in the oil and natural gas drilling process. But many cautioned it was just a first step.
"It sets a floor for what the industry needs to do," said attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center. "The reality is we can do far better."
Earlier this year, the oil company Plains Exploration and Production (PXP) blasted water and chemicals more than one and half miles into the earth to force oil embedded in a sandstone formation to gush to the surface.
The process—known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking"—has been debated in many U.S. communities where oil and gas deposits have been identified in recent years. But PXP wasn't fracking in the much-touted Marcellus Shale on the East Coast, where much of the controversy over fracking has centered. It was fracking two test wells in urban Los Angeles, where 300,000 people live within a three-mile radius.
The drilling was done less than a year after community and environmental groups reached a settlement with PXP, after complaining for years about pollution from the site.
Hydraulic fracturing, which is used to recover deeply buried sources of gas and oil, is emerging as a contentious issue in California. Nearly two-thirds of the nation's shale oil deposits are found in California, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but most of it is hard to recover without fracking.
A recent report in Los Angeles Times revealed that the state is ill-prepared for a surge in this type of drilling, with regulators as well as residents struggling simply to define fracking, much less pinpoint where it is occurring.
France's Total is laying plans including a helicopter water drop, fire-fighting vessels and spraying nitrogen to extinguish a flare on its Elgin North Sea gas platform that is leaking explosive clouds of gas, the energy department said.
The flare, lit as part of evacuation proceedings to relieve pressure in the abandoned rig, cannot be turned off remotely and remains at risk of igniting the explosive plumes pumping out of the platform, the department said.
But it added aerial surveillance suggests the flame has reduced in size, offering hope for a safe resolution to the crisis.
The authorities have praised the embattled French oil firm's handling of the leak, one of the North Sea's biggest in decades, calling it "effective" and conditions on the rig "stable" as hydrocarbons continue to spew into the atmosphere.
Total has dismissed the risk of a blast at the platform and has two fire-fighting ships ready to act outside a two mile-exclusion zone set up to protect marine traffic. Experts warn Elgin could become "an explosion waiting to happen."
California's long-running campaign to reduce air pollution has indirectly helped create a new problem: its oil refineries produce more greenhouse gas emissions than refineries anywhere else in the country.
On average, California refineries emit 19 to 33 percent more greenhouse gases per barrel of crude oil when stacked up against comparable gas-producing regions in the United States, according to a recent study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report analyzed national and California-specific refinery data and combined it with data gathered by author Greg Karras, who has been studying and writing about refinery operations since 1989.
California began mandating cleaner burning fuel than the rest of the nation in the mid-1990s, in an effort to combat some of the worst smog levels in the country and meet federal clean air rules. That spurred oil refiners to expand their facilities and install technology to remove more pollutants like sulfur, so car tailpipes would spew out less of it.
In the last decade, however, oil refineries have begun processing heavier and dirtier types of crude oil, including Canadian tar sands oil, which requires more cleaning to meet California's standard. And that extra cleaning means that plants use more energy and emit more CO2.
An associate of the Heartland Institute, the think tank devoted to discrediting climate change, taught a course at a top Canadian university that contained more than 140 false, biased and misleading claims about climate science, an expert audit has found.
The course at Ottawa's Carleton University, which is being accused of bias, was taught for four terms from 2009-2011 by Tom Harris, a featured expert at the Heartland Institute.
Heartland's core mission is to discredit climate change, and it is currently moving into the education realm. It plans to spend $100,000 on a project countering established teaching of climate change to American school children, an unauthorized release of documents showed.
But the audit report, released on Tuesday, suggests such efforts are already underway on college campuses.
The career and reputation of the scientist behind the Heartland Institute exposé was in jeopardy on Wednesday night, after his employers said they were reviewing his use of deception to obtain confidential documents.
The review, by the board of directors of the Pacific Institute, was the most serious potential repercussion to date of the admission by Peter Gleick that he had lied to obtain fundraising documents and a donor list from Heartland, the rightwing think tank devoted to discrediting climate change.
A statement on the website of the Pacific Institute, which Gleick founded and now heads, said the board was "deeply concerned" about the ruse carried out against Heartland.
"Neither the board nor the staff of the Pacific Institute knew of, played any role in, or condones these events," the board said.