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Germany Has Built Clean Energy Economy That U.S. Rejected 30 Years Ago

Clean Break: Chapter 1 in the story of Germany's switch to renewables

By Osha Gray Davidson

Nov 13, 2012
A German farming village with rooftop solar panels.

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 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 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.

In an interview later that day, Dr. Joachim Pfeiffer, a leading spokesman for the center-right Christian Democrats, boasted about the Energiewende's progress under his party.

"We'll definitely get to 35 percent renewable power by 2020," he said, referring to the next official target. "In fact, we'll probably reach 40 percent."


Click here to view the slideshow of Germany's switch to renewables.


 Pfeiffer isn't happy about every aspect of the campaign. He thinks the German public's call to eliminate nuclear power by 2022 was "an emotional reaction to what happened at Fukushima." But he's quick to add that this is just his personal belief. After all, the leader of his own party, Chancellor Angela Merkel, made the nuclear phase-out national policy in 2011. "Eighty percent of Germans are now against nuclear power," Pfeiffer explained, placing his hands on the table palms face up, in a gesture of capitulation. "It's over."

The pervasiveness of the Energiewende was driven home for me on a six-hour train ride through the German countryside. Gazing out the window as the train raced from Hamburg in the north to near the border with Switzerland in the south, massive wind turbines and rooftops covered with solar panels were seldom out of sight. A couple of hours into the journey we rounded a bend and the scene took on a surreal quality. Yet another cluster of barns and outbuildings came into view, the red ceramic roof tiles nearly hidden by blue, solar photovoltaic panels. The buildings swam in a sea of bright yellow rapeseed—the raw material of biodiesel fuel. On a distant slope, the long thin blades of three wind turbines revolved in unison as if choreographed. I was suddenly seized by the desire to grab the well-dressed man in the seat next to me, who was engrossed in today's Die Zeit, and demand that he look out the window and tell me if this Energiewende parade is real or a moveable tableau staged for foreign journalists.

The numbers I gathered on my trip seem as unlikely as the scene out the window.

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