Like many others in the area, Schwär also earns money from generating electricity through the solar panels on his roof and selling it to the grid. He's assured of getting a premium price for the electricity, thanks to Germany's Feed-in-Tariff, the renewable energy bonus payment that has made the Energiewende move so fast. Without the FiT, only the deepest green eco-warriors would probably go to the trouble and expense of installing solar panels on their roofs. With the bonus, even the most buttoned-down, tofu-hating conservatives have joined the renewable revolution. Political philosophy has remarkably little to do with support for the Energiewende.
"The reason Germany is so far ahead of us in renewable power is simple," said DG-advocate John Farrell. "Their policies are designed so that people have skin in the game."
Farmer Schwär also receives another important benefit: a vote on how the town's generating plant is run. That's because Bürger Energie is a cooperative, part of a nationwide movement started by small farmers in the 19th century. In its latest incarnation, the "crop" driving the cooperative movement is homegrown energy, produced primarily from biomass, photovoltaics and wind power. Participation in this type of co-op has grown dramatically in recent years. Eight energy co-ops were founded in 2006. By the end of 2011, another 431 energy co-ops had been added. Today, energy co-ops produce power for 83,000 German households.
Inside the power plant, Bohnert showed me the guts of the operation, starting with the gleaming white furnace. At eye-level was a thick steel door with a viewing port the size of a golf ball. Bohnert waved for me to come closer. I wasn't sure what to look for since the furnace apparently wasn't in use. Nothing was coming out of the building's tall metal smokestack. The furnace was cold to the touch and the room that housed it relatively quiet.
When I looked into the port, however, it was obvious that the furnace was running at full power. What I saw through that small window was unlike any fire I had seen. Perhaps because of the tremendous heat (nearly 1,500˚F), the flames were sinuous and folded in on themselves in orange and yellow waves that seemed to move in slow motion.
When I stepped back, Bohnert was grinning. Apparently, I wasn't the first person mesmerized by the view through the porthole.
After showing off the electrostatic filter that rendered the process essentially smokeless, Bohnert led me to a giant wall map and pointed to a thick red stripe—the pipeline—that zigzagged in all directions. It connected the plant to 200 green and yellow rectangles depicting buildings throughout the village.
The construction took two years to complete, making it the town's largest project since the Abbey was built. Each member paid roughly $4,000 to join the co-op and connect to the power plant. The lower cost of the homegrown energy allows them to pay off their fees quickly. Wealthy members can buy additional shares in the co-op as an investment. But because the co-ops are designed on the principle of one person, one vote, a millionaire with several dozen shares has no more say in running the co-op than a small shopkeeper with a single share.
Bürger Energie's co-op members recently voted to make a major investment in their plant. The current unit produces only heat, so they're going to add a combined heat and power station that will also generate electricity they can sell to the grid.
Participatory democracy also helped create the energy coop I visited in Honigsee, a small village 500 miles north of St. Peter and not far from Germany's northern border with Denmark.
The townspeople wanted to harness heat from a biogas plant that two local farmers built to generate power from manure and vegetable matter, but they needed a pipeline to transfer the heat to nearby houses and farms. Although the co-op had enough money to hire a professional with a backhoe to lay the main pipeline, the cost of connecting individual members' houses made the project seem out of reach.
"We had to do our own work," recalled Dr. Frank Heblich, a physician and one of the co-op founders, as we walked down a dirt road between the large biogas digesters and the small pumping station. "Everyone was out with picks and even trowels—digging, digging, digging," he said and comically pantomimed the action. "It was kind of funny to see, but there is also something very good about seeing a village work together like that."
Digging trenches with trowels or returning to wood heating may not seem like much of an advance to Americans. We rightly pride ourselves on innovation, on developing cutting-edge technologies. Sometimes, however, our pursuit of the newest and sexiest technology can blind us to less glamorous alternatives that are cheaper and readily available. While American labs spend millions to boost the efficiency of solar panels ever so slightly, Germany's priority has been to get the old workhorse of solar power—silicon panels—out the door and up on people's roofs.
Germany's engineering prowess is respected throughout the world. In fact, German researchers developed some of the most efficient solar panels available today. But the success of the Energiewende owes even more to a German trait that is often lampooned: a methodical approach to solving problems.