Phoenix, Arizona—From a block away, the house was hardly visible, hidden by a dense stand of native mesquite and palo verde trees and tall clumps of prickly pear cactus. Close up, you could see the concrete block structure, built a half century ago when acres of citrus groves were broken into parcels and replaced by homes.
Turning the site back into desert took some work, Brock Tunnicliff explained, standing outside his house on a typical September morning in the Sonoran desert, temperatures in the mid-80s under a nearly cloudless sky. It also took some courage, because desert landscaping isn't popular in Phoenix. Most people here still prefer a lawn out front and a swimming pool in the back.
For Tunnicliff, who works in natural resource management, adopting native landscape was a logical choice in a desert climate. Bolted to his roof was another rational choice: a solar photovoltaic system that supplies most of his family's electricity needs. He installed the system even though he estimates it will take 12 years to break even on the investment.
"That is the future of energy," he said, pointing to the dark blue panels on his roof.
How far in the future is anyone's guess, however. Four years after Tunnicliff installed the system, a satellite image reveals no other solar panels in his neighborhood. In America's sunniest and driest big city, swimming pools still outnumber solar panels by a thousand to one. In fact, Germany—which receives only half as much sunlight as Arizona—has four times as much solar power installed per capita as the Grand Canyon state. Compared nation-to-nation, Germany's advantage is even more lopsided: This darker, cloudier central European country has 23 times more solar power per capita than the United States.
This is Chapter 6 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5. Or read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
The primary reason for the renewable energy gulf between the United States and Germany can be summed-up in one word: policy. In 2000, Germany's Renewable Energies Act went into effect, and power generated from the sun, wind, and biomass soared. In 2012, U.S. politicians are still wrangling about whether global warming is a hoax.
Click here to view the slideshow of Germany's switch to renewables.
The absurdity of the U.S. impasse over energy reform was highlighted when the primary author of the Germany law, Hans-Josef Fell, told me what I already had heard from other German leaders—that he was inspired to write the act by what today seems like an unlikely source.
"Your President Jimmy Carter was the first politician to promote an industrial revolution with renewables," Fell said when we met in his Berlin office in April. "I looked to the USA in the 1970s. There was wind power in California and solar power on the White House. I thought, 'Oh, this is wonderful! Why can't we have this in Germany?'"
For a time, the United States led the world in developing renewable energy. At one point the Carter administration's Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) made the dream of a renewable energy economy so real that it set off alarms in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.
"The big powers are seriously trying to find alternatives to oil by seeking to draw energy from the sun," Saudi Arabia's oil minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani warned his colleagues. "We hope to God they will not succeed quickly because our position in that case will be painful."
Four years later, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. The new administration considered SERI a prime example of what it derided as "solar socialism." The budget of the world's leading solar institute was slashed and before long it was back to (oil) business as usual.
As Fell tells it: "Reagan said, 'Go away with this shit of renewables.' And that was that."
A generation of Germans picked up the renewable torch that the Reagan administration tossed aside and bought up SERI-produced patents at fire-sale prices. The renewable energy revolution didn't end. It moved overseas and was renamed die Energiewende.
Can the American renewable energy revolution be restarted? William Reilly, the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the George H.W. Bush administration, thinks so. "We're going to get there, one way or another," he told me during a 2009 interview about his solar-powered home.