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.
This is Chapter 2 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. Or read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
How did wind and solar power take off so fast and so dramatically in one of the world's largest industrialized economies? How did renewable energies of all kinds come to account for more than 25 percent of the power fed into Germany's grid—compared to just 6 percent in the United States?
The answer is as simple as that old cliché about real estate—the one about how everything depends on location, location, location. In the case of Germany's astonishing energy transformation, it's all about policy, policy, policy. Specifically, it's the Renewable Energy Act of 2000, known in Germany as the EEG.
Rainer Baake, one of the EEG's authors, sums up the task that members of the German parliament faced when designing the policy: "We had to transform the old system completely."
The EEG's goal was to replace coal- and nuclear-generated electricity with power from clean, renewable sources of energy: wind, biomass, solar, geothermal and small hydropower facilities. The target set by the law was one of the most ambitious in the world: By 2050, Germany would rely on renewable energy sources for 80 percent of its electricity. Opponents scorned the plan as "green delusions."
Click here to view the slideshow of Germany's switch to renewables.
The law's supporters had several reasons for wanting to phase out coal and nuclear power. Burning coal adds tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and nearly all Germans recognize climate change as a serious threat. Also, the country is running out of coal and Germans don't want to be dependent on foreign imports—the desire for energy independence is felt even more acutely in Germany than it is in the United States.
Gradually phasing out nuclear reactors made sense, too. Germans had been ambivalent about nuclear energy for decades, especially after the 1986 meltdown of a Soviet reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, sent radioactive clouds drifting across much of Europe. In addition to fears for their own safety, many argue that it is unethical to burden future generations with the radioactive waste that nuclear power produces.
There was a more immediate social goal behind the EEG as well: the democratization and decentralization of energy production.
"The solution to our energy problems, from nuclear to climate change, can't be a centralized one," Eva Stegen explained to me as she piloted us through the cloud-banked mountains of the Black Forest in her three-wheeled electric car. As communications director for EWS, Germany's first clean energy cooperative, Stegen had no doubt explained all of this many times, but she is so enthusiastic about the Energiewende that she answered my most basic questions as if she were hearing them for the first time.
"Einstein said that the way that leads into a catastrophe cannot be the way that leads out," she said, rounding a corner in the little, neon green car. "Centralized power is the problem. So we needed to find a new way. And that is what the EEG gave us."