With Clean Break, a recommended 99 cent 'Kindle Single' purchase/read, Osha Gray Davidson has provided English speakers an enjoyable and illuminating look at Germany's Energiewende -- that wholesale societal shift commonly translated as "energy shift" and "energy transition". Despite its booming economy -- in the powerhouse position of Europe -- and the mounting role that solar power is playing in its electricity system, despite having the solar resources of Alaska, anti-clean energy attack sound machine (like too much of the Grand Oil Party) pound home misdirections and erroneous information about Germany's move toward a clean-energy economy. Clean Break, which reads like a collection of short essays, provides an easy-read counterpoint to that sound machine.
On flights around the United States, when coming into cities, I find myself looking for the (too) rare white roofed commercial structure and the even scarcer solar panel. When arriving in Germany, even while prepared for this intellectually, the ubiquitous nature of 'white roofs' (energy efficiency) and solar panels (renewable energy) flabbergasted me. Davidson had a similar experience:
The pervasiveness of the Energiewende was driven home for me on a six-hour train ride through the German countryside. Gazing out the window as the train raced from Hamburg in the north to near the border with Switzerland in the south, massive wind turbines and rooftops covered with solar panels were seldom out of sight. A couple of hours into the journey we rounded a bend and the scene took on a surreal quality. Yet another cluster of barns and outbuildings came into view, the red ceramic roof tiles nearly hidden by blue, solar photovoltaic panels. The buildings swam in a sea of bright yellow rapeseed the raw material of biodiesel fuel. On a distant slope, the long thin blades of three wind turbines revolved in unison as if choreographed. I was suddenly seized by the desire to grab the well-dressed man in the seat next to me, who was engrossed in today’s Die Zeit, and demand that he look out the window and tell me if this Energiewende parade is real or a moveable tableau staged for foreign journalists.In Clean Break, Davidson lays out that Germany's Energiewende is no Potemkin village of feel-good activities, but a wide-ranging set of projects that are both loosely and tightly linked to the long-term objective of ending Germany's reliance on fossil fuel and nuclear power electricity systems.
Whether one vehemently agrees or vehemently disagrees with the German decision to walk away from nuclear power, Davidson provides exposure to the cultural and other driving factors behind that decisions. Two key items: Chernobyl and Fukushima. There are severe challenges in a move to a low-carbon-electricity system with removing nuclear power from the system. And, those challenges suggest that one think through the equation long and hard before making this choice. Nuclear power is the most significant, at this time, low-carbon source of electricity. From my perspective, much better to be using clean energy and energy efficiency to reduce coal (and natural gas) electricity production before targeting removing nuclear power from the generation system. However, that is not the choice Germany has taken.
There are several key elements to the 'story':
- The Energiewende is structured for economic benefits and strength at all economic levels. The individual can 'make money' through solar or wind or biomass power even as large exporting industries are being protected from near-term cost premiums for the move to a cleaner energy structure.
- Perhaps it is German culture, but the 'energy transition' is being done with a mindset for success. Thus, for example, the need for storage and power management to deal with solar and wind intermittency isn't a "problem" but a task to be solved.
- Germans are having success with "tasks" that America can learn from to help move forward EE/RE programs. Even with union labor and higher wages, Germans can install solar systems for a fraction of the cost that Americans will find. Streamlined paperwork, standardized packages, volume of projects, and otherwise mean that a German installation might come at half the cost of one in the United States.
- Germany and Germans found great inspiration in the United States (Jimmy Carter) and leveraged US investments (including buying up patents) that Ronald Reagan threw into the dustbin of history. Germany is racing to an 80 percent renewable energy system -- and likely 100 percent or better (exports) -- by 2050 on the backs, in no small part, of US investments and US strategic thinking.
Germany's Energiewende was put into legal framework with comprehensive legislation in 2000. On reading this book, my mind turned to the Supreme Court and Florida in December 2000 with an alternative history questioning as to whether President Gore might have forged a trans-Atlantic Energiewende ... Ah, the "could've been moment" ... Twelve years later, with a Democratic Party candidate (again) elected President without an opening for Supreme Court disruption of the election results, perhaps Clean Break,will provide a useful tool for moving the conversation toward accelerating such a trans-Atlantic power shift in the coming years.
NOTE: Tuesday, 13 November, the author and commentators will be giving a two-hour presentation at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, from 0900-1100.