Phoenix, Arizona—From a block away, the house was hardly visible, hidden by a dense stand of native mesquite and palo verde trees and tall clumps of prickly pear cactus. Close up, you could see the concrete block structure, built a half century ago when acres of citrus groves were broken into parcels and replaced by homes.
Turning the site back into desert took some work, Brock Tunnicliff explained, standing outside his house on a typical September morning in the Sonoran desert, temperatures in the mid-80s under a nearly cloudless sky. It also took some courage, because desert landscaping isn't popular in Phoenix. Most people here still prefer a lawn out front and a swimming pool in the back.
For Tunnicliff, who works in natural resource management, adopting native landscape was a logical choice in a desert climate. Bolted to his roof was another rational choice: a solar photovoltaic system that supplies most of his family's electricity needs. He installed the system even though he estimates it will take 12 years to break even on the investment.
"That is the future of energy," he said, pointing to the dark blue panels on his roof.
How far in the future is anyone's guess, however. Four years after Tunnicliff installed the system, a satellite image reveals no other solar panels in his neighborhood. In America's sunniest and driest big city, swimming pools still outnumber solar panels by a thousand to one. In fact, Germany—which receives only half as much sunlight as Arizona—has four times as much solar power installed per capita as the Grand Canyon state. Compared nation-to-nation, Germany's advantage is even more lopsided: This darker, cloudier central European country has 23 times more solar power per capita than the United States.
Hamburg, Germany—It was late morning when I stepped out of my hotel lobby and into the jostle of Kirchenallee Street in Hamburg's city center. I checked my watch, jotted down the time in my notebook and set out for the nearest subway station (U-Bahn in German).
The sidewalks were packed with people enjoying the glorious spring weather on May Day, a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the United States. When I arrived at a stairway beneath a large "U," I checked the time. The walk from my hotel to Hauptbahnhof Süd station had taken one minute and 30 seconds. Seven minutes later I was on a subway car speeding smoothly south.
A trip across Hamburg is like visiting the launch pad of Germany's renewable energy revolution, or Energiewende. Planners call it the "built environment," a term that includes buildings, parks and the transportation system that connects them. How a city handles these ho-hum elements determines everything from energy usage to greenhouse gas emissions to the quality of life enjoyed by residents.
Bonn, Germany—On the afternoon of April 29, 1986, West Germany's Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann walked out of a meeting with the Commission on Radiological Protection and spoke to a TV reporter.
"There is no danger," Zimmermann assured millions of anxious viewers. "Chernobyl is 2,000 kilometers away."
Zimmermann's words carried authority—and not just because of his high office. He looked authoritative, dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, matching dark tie, and steel-framed aviator glasses on his plump face. He also spoke with the cold command of a lawyer, which he had been before entering politics.
The only element out of place in his reassuring performance that day was a large oil painting on the wall behind him. It depicted storm clouds gathering above churning seas and its omen of dread proved to be the most accurate part of the interview. Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, was 300 miles closer than Zimmermann had said. Even as he spoke, a radioactive cloud released by the worst nuclear power disaster in history was over East Germany and drifting west.
Like all revolutions, the German Energiewende was set in motion by many factors and its course altered by a multitude of events and actors along the way. A few key moments stand out, however, and the Chernobyl catastrophe is one of them. To fully understand the Energiewende, and to anticipate its future twists and turns, it's essential to understand the role Chernobyl played in shaping the German public's view of nuclear power.
Sankt Peter im Schwarzwald, Germany—The Abbey of St. Peter in the Black Forest has had its ups and downs since its founding in 1090. It burned to the ground in 1238. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by fire in 1437, establishing a pattern that would be repeated for several centuries. In 1727, after it went up in flames yet again, citizens of this close-knit mountain village decided to try something different. They built a new church from blocks of fireproof sandstone, creating an imposing structure that still dominates their postcard-perfect village.
Today, the Abbey is known as one of Germany's most exquisite Baroque buildings. What isn't widely known is that it's also a vivid example of Germany's recent Energiewende and how the energy revolution was built from the bottom up.
The Abbey complex was originally heated by fireplaces, which were eventually replaced with a central heating system that consumed 34,000 gallons of heating oil a year. But on the chilly day I visited the magnificent church, not ein Fingerhut (one thimbleful) of oil was burned to keep me toasty. The heat came from water that had been brought nearly to a boil in a state-of-the-art furnace fueled by wood chips. Somewhere between the size of an SUV and a school bus, the furnace sat in a concrete building a few hundred yards from the Abbey. From that non-descript building, hot water was pumped through four miles of insulated pipes that connect the Abbey to most of the shops and houses in St. Peter, as well as to the school, public swimming pools, the town hall, a spacious community center and other assorted buildings.
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.