Going Green? A Lesson from Germany

Apr 16, 2014

Wildpoldsreid, Germany

It’s been sixty years since the first solar panel was developed by Bell Laboratories, and more than twenty years since the first solar plant began feeding power into the grid in California, but here in Virginia there are fewer than a thousand households producing and selling electricity back to Dominion Power. 

Wind turbines are also rare, but  reports that could change quickly if government and the public got on board.

Wildpoldsreid is a tiny German town in the foothills of the Alps.  It has just 2,500 people, no industries or historic sites, but Wildpoldsreid is on the world map, thanks to its love of green energy.

Tourists come from around the world.  The Mayor of Fukushima has been here twice -- anxious to learn how the town installed 190 solar arrays, a biogas plant and seven wind turbines. Gunther Mogele is the town’s deputy mayor.

“We produce 500% of the electrical energy we need – and the biggest part is produced by our windmills, biogas and by photovoltaics.” 

Journalist and solar entrepreneur Erik Kirschbaum says this kind of thing has been happening all over Germany since the federal government ordered utilities to buy as much green energy as the public could produce.

“The Renewable Energy Act is a law that really struck a nerve deep inside the Germans, and they’ve cracked open their piggy banks and built their own photovoltaic plants and their own wind energy plants, and there’s all kinds of methods, even for middle income Germans, to contribute a few hundred euros and be part of a big solar project.  It grew much faster than expected.  Germany has about 30 nuclear power plants worth of solar power now.” 

Kirschbaum began by leasing the roof of his kids’ school, then moved on to barns all over Bavaria.

“We usually rent a roof that needs to be renovated, so the farmer is happy.  He gets a new roof, and there are solar power panels on it.  He also has the possibility to buy some of our solar power from us at a rate below what he would pay for the utility.  The rest of the solar power goes fed into the grid, and the utility pays us for whatever we pay into the grid.”

The nation’s decision to blaze a green trail is logical, given Germany’s industrial might and its lack of natural resources.  Claudia Kempfert is with the German Institute of Economic Research.

“We don’t have any other way, because we don’t have oil.  We don’t have gas.  We have a little bit of coal.  What Germany has is knowledge, and we could use it.”

And Ryan Heath – a spokesman for the European Commission – says this is the only way Germany can assure stable prices in the long run:

“If you look at the alternatives, which include being at the mercy of Russian gas supplies for example, those prices can go up and down with no control whatsoever.”

But government support for green energy has not been popular with all Germans. The money needed to subsidize new sources came from a surcharge imposed on all residential and commercial customers, so rates for everyone have been rising steadily.  Rainer Hasters lives in a four-room apartment in Berlin and pays the equivalent of $2,500 a year for electricity – up about 25% from one year ago. 

“I go kind of mad, because the surcharge on our electric bill is used for putting more and more solar panels on German roofs, and the sun doesn’t shine at night and not in winter so often, so solar panels in Germany is definitely not the right way to go.” 

Faced with complaints from consumers and corporations, the government has been cutting back on what it pays solar producers, but investors are still making money, and the country is on track to produce 45% of its power from renewables by 2025.

Back in Wildpoldsreid, Karl Geller, who heads the department of environmental engineering at a community college nearby, says it couldn’t have happened without support from Berlin.

“The government has to be the one to push it.  In Austria you don’t see the solar panel so much, because the government didn’t go the same way as ours.”

And the European Union has taken note.  Ryan Heath says you can’t wait for the private sector to develop new energy technologies. 

“If you don’t have a government input, a lot of this stuff doesn’t happen in the first place.  It takes someone who has that ability to raise the long-term cash or look at a very long-term view to get that happening.”

Late last year, the EU launched the largest program of its kind – Horizon 2020 – committing the equivalent of $100 billion for seven years of basic research in many fields -- including green energy.