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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
(Page 2 of 3 )
A German farming village with rooftop solar panels.

Twenty-five percent of Germany's electricity now comes from solar, wind and biomass. A third of the world's installed solar capacity is found in Germany, a nation that gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. A whopping 65 percent of the country's total renewable power capacity is now owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities, leaving Germany's once all-powerful utilities with just a sliver (6.5 percent) of this burgeoning sector.

Still, major hurdles remain in Germany's quest for 100 percent renewable power. More than 5,000 miles of power lines need to be added to the electrical grid to accommodate the new energy sources—at a staggering cost of $25 billion. And researchers will have to find a more cost-effective means of storing energy produced by solar and wind power.

But Energiewende advocates approach these hurdles with the same mindset they've used to clear earlier ones. When I asked Hans-Josef Fell, the chief architect of the Energiewende's legal framework, about the energy storage problem, he immediately corrected my terminology. "It is not a problem," he insisted. "It is a task." By keeping their eyes on the prize of 100 percent renewable power, supporters have achieved more than anyone outside their ranks had thought possible.

The Reichstag, the home of Germany's parliament, is a perfect microcosm of the Energiewende I saw from the train. Revolutionary in its architecture and use of energy, the building is at once beautiful and functional. Over the grand plenary chamber, which was once capped by a dark and ponderous dome, world-renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster has set a glass cupola with a viewing ramp winding to the very top—symbols of government transparency and democratic ideals. Inside the dome is a cone-shaped "light sculpture" made of 360 mirrors, extending from the apex of the cupola down into the heart of the chamber 75 feet below. The cone funnels sunlight throughout the building. A bank of solar panels, seamlessly embedded in the roof, powers a swiveling metal shade that reduces glare by tracking the sun's path and filtering its harshest rays.

In addition to this extraordinary system above the central chamber, there's a cogenerator in the Reichstag's basement. Powered by rapeseed oil, it produces both electricity and heat. Heat from electrical generation is usually dumped into the environment and lost forever. But excess heat from this cogenerator is pumped into a natural aquifer nearly a thousand feet underground, where it is easily reclaimed to warm the building in winter. The Reichstag generates half of all the electricity it consumes, and gets the rest from renewable sources offsite, making it the greenest parliament in the world.

After I returned home from Germany, I visited the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to see how its energy usage stacks up against the Reichstag's. Three blocks south I found the Capitol Building's power source, a grimy complex dominated by twin smokestacks of stained yellow brick. The Capitol Power Plant was built in 1910 next to a railroad line, so it could receive the thousands of tons of West Virginia coal it burned every year. Though it stopped generating electricity in 1957, the plant's boilers still heat the Capitol in winter and a large unit cools the Capitol in the summer.

For decades, neighbors and health officials have complained about the noxious smoke, fumes and fine particles coming from the yellow smokestacks. Representative James Moran, a Virginia Democrat, once dubbed the power plant the "armpit of the Capitol." But tentative discussions in 2000 on phasing out coal were immediately scuttled by powerful senators from coal mining states.

On June 21, 2007, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unveiled the "Green the Capitol" program with the twin goals of switching to 100 percent renewable energy and making the House carbon-neutral by December 2008. "By the power of our example," Pelosi declared at the time, "we hope to send a message to the world and to the country."

But standing outside the plant's fenced perimeter on a sweltering afternoon five years later, it was clear that while Germany jumped headlong into the Energiewende, America has made timidity its guide. The House dropped its quest for carbon neutrality in 2009, and the government's biggest success has been substituting one form of fossil fuel for another: The plant now burns less coal and more natural gas.

The program didn't achieve its own goals—much less the vastly more ambitious ones met by the Reichstag.

The U.S. wasn't always so timid. Thirty years ago, we led the world in renewable energy research and production, and Jimmy Carter's White House was the first government building in the world to install solar panels on its roof. Ursula Sladek, a resident of the tiny Black Forest village of Schönau, remembers reading about the installation project in the 1970s, when the United States was hit by soaring oil prices and gasoline shortages. Sladek, an elementary school teacher married to the village doctor, marveled at America's resilience, ingenuity and spirit—and at President Carter's vision.

The panels were unceremoniously hauled down by President Ronald Reagan a few years later, of course, and the image of Carter in a wool cardigan counseling his fellow citizens to dial back their thermostats to conserve energy became an object of ridicule in the United States.

But Sladek—like most of the Germans I met—never got the joke. For them, the peanut farmer from Georgia, who tried to chart a new energy future for America, became the unlikely inspiration for their Energiewende.

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