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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.

NOTE 2:  

Originally posted to A Siegel on Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 12:17 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, Climate Change SOS, Climate Hawks, and DK GreenRoots.

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