How can the United States turn its clean energy economy into one as robust as Germany's, where 26 percent of electrical power currently comes from renewable sources?
The answer, said author Osha Gray Davidson, is that the government should listen to the people.
"The critical part is that the German people decided to do this, then [the government] worked out the policy," said Davidson, author of the new book "Clean Break" about Germany's renewable energy transformation or Energiewende.
"To people who say it can't be done here, it worked in Germany. If they can do it there, we can do it here."
Davidson spoke at a panel discussion in Washington D.C. Tuesday sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and InsideClimate News, which is publishing "Clean Break" as a six-part series. Other panelists included Eric Roston, sustainability editor for Bloomberg.com, Anya Schoolman, executive director of the D.C.-based Community Power Network and Arne Jungjohann, director of the Böll Foundation's environmental and global dialogue program.
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As part of the Energiewende, the German government set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, Davidson said. But Germany has already surpassed its early targets and has bumped up its goal for 2020 from 30 to 35 percent. Davidson said some of the Energiewende's leaders believe that 100 percent renewable power is achievable by 2050.
One of the keys to Germany's success is that "everyone has skin in the game," Davidson said, because citizens are allowed to build their own renewable energy sources and sell the power they produce to the grid.
"Everyone participates," Davidson said, so all citizens have an incentive to make the renewable system work.
The panelists agreed that the renewable energy movement in the United States has been slowed in part by the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation. The U.S. currently has about 6 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, compared to 32 gigawatts in Germany.
Schoolman spoke about the challenges her group faces in trying to build community-based renewable projects. The Community Power Network is composed of local, state and national organizations that promote local renewable energy projects, including co-ops and shared renewable networks.
Schoolman said the United States doesn't have the right government incentives to duplicate Germany's renewable efforts. In fact, she said some states, including Virginia and New Hampshire, make it difficult just to install solar panels on a house, let alone put a broader community network into place.
Still, Schoolman is hopeful that the United States can create its own energy transformation. She pointed to a New Hampshire community that is fueled by solar thermal power, a West Virginia pastor who is helping people in his community build their own solar panels and a Minneapolis wind company that maximizes leases for turbines on farmland.
She also praised a system in Washington, D.C. where the utility uses ratepayer money to fund its solar initiatives, then passes the savings back to its customers.
"If you make the benefits broad enough and shared across the whole city, people will pay for it," Schoolman said, adding that the system wouldn't work if the utility collected the benefits and ratepayers didn’t see their bills drop.
Roston, the Bloomberg sustainability editor, said the results of last week's election show that "America is changing" and support is growing for the clean energy and for climate change action. Despite the roadblocks in climate legislation and the fact that the U.S. is projected to surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2017, he believes there is reason to hope that the country will move toward a renewable future.
"Every day the U.S. energy conversation changes," Roston said. "Every day there are mixed signals. But those signals are moving in ... the right direction."