NYT Reports on a Global Clean Energy Reckoning for Dirty Utilities

Germany's energy transformation is the most ambitious undertaking of its kind on the planet, with ripple effects being felt across the globe.

The German Parliament building in Berlin was rebuilt by British architect Sir Norman Forster after reunification as a symbol and an example of the Energiewende, the name for the country's renewable energy transformation. The building is fully powered by renewable energy. Credit: Osha Gray Davidson

Osha Gray Davidson is the author of "Clean Break: The Story of Germany's Energy Transformation and What America Can Learn From It," an InsideClimate News e-book published in November 2012. 

The German energy transition, or Energiewende, has been covered sporadically by the U.S. media, often with little regard for nuance, despite the fact that the German project to move from carbon and nuclear-based energy to renewables is the most ambitious undertaking of its kind on the planet. A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times is an example of the kind of quality reporting that has been all too rare. The longish piece (approximately 2,400 words) uses the construction of new wind farms in the North Sea as a point of departure to report on the Energiewende and the ripple effects being felt globally.

"It will be another milestone in Germany's costly attempt to remake its electricity system," writes the Times' reporter, Justin Gillis, "an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States."

As the Times' article points out, the Energiewende isn't cheap. The undertaking has cost $140 billion so far, mostly for incentives paid to citizens, farmers, and cooperatives who are guaranteed an above-market price for the electricity from rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, and biogas generators. The cost is passed on to households in the form of a renewable energy surcharge, which, says Gillis, has added an extra $280 a year to the average household electric bill. 

Gillis does a particularly good job charting the Energiewende's global effect. The massive solar build-out in Germany helped spark a global manufacturing boom that in turn has driven down the price of solar panels. Over the last decade, Gillis observes, sales of solar panels have doubled every 21 months, with "prices falling roughly 20 percent with each doubling."

The article also exposes just how timid U.S. exploration of this vital frontier has been, and describes efforts by activists here to adapt the German energy revolution for an American context. The article is one of the first high-profile studies of the role of giant electric utilities in opposing the shift to renewables.

Gillis writes: "Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans."

SLIDESHOW: Clean Break: Germany's Switch to Renewables

Nearly two years ago, InsideClimate News published my own study of the Energiewende, called Clean Break. It was based on six months of research including three weeks traveling throughout Germany. I remember one conversation in particular—with Ursula Sladek, a former schoolteacher in a small Black Forest village. 

With her neighbors, Sladek created her own utility, which would get power from only renewable sources. It took her more than two decades of legal and political battles, but by 2012 the company Sladek formed supplied renewable power to her town—and also to 180,000 homes and businesses throughout Germany. 

I asked Sladek what lessons could the United States learn from the German Energiewende that she had helped start. The question took her by surprise. "This is something very American, isn't it?" she said. "The Americans are people who say: 'We can do it ourselves.'"

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