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How Dying Forests and a Swedish Teenager Helped Revive Germany's Clean Energy Revolution

Public support for action on climate change and hundreds of wind and solar co-ops that brought benefits to local communities restarted a stalled movement.By Dan Gearino APR 30, 2020

BERLIN—Twenty years ago, before climate change was as widely seen as the existential threat it is today, Germany embarked on an ambitious program to transform the way it produced electric power.

Over the next two decades, it became a model for countries around the world, showing how renewable energy could replace fossil fuels in a way that drew wide public buy-in by passing on the benefits—and much of the control—to local communities. 

The steps Germany took on this journey, and the missteps it made along the way. Last summer, I went to Germany to figure out where the energy transition, or "Energiewende," stands today, with climate change blaring like a siren across a nation already alarmed. Record-breaking heat in successive summers had left the fabled German forests dotted with clumps of dead brown trees. My hotel room in Berlin was broiling.

As a longtime energy reporter, my working hypothesis was that Germany's experience held many lessons for the United States. The two countries have a lot in common economically and culturally. They are heavily industrialized economies with powerful energy and automotive industries. Both were built, in part, using inexpensive coal power, and both have emissions challenges partly shaped by car cultures that are difficult to change.

But while Germany has made immense progress on climate and clean energy, the United States has lagged far behind. Germany now generates 43 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared with 17.5 percent in the United States. And Germany does it without rolling blackouts or brownouts—a powerful lesson in and of itself for America, where utilities in many states continue fighting the transition to renewable energy.

"What Germany did has made a huge difference for everybody, for the whole world," and the United States should pay attention to that, said Greg Nemet, a University of Wisconsin public affairs professor who has spent years studying German energy policy.

Perhaps most important, Germans have embraced renewable energy because they have a stake in electric power and reap the benefits locally, in the form of jobs and energy-funded social programs. And in Germany, where 71 percent of the population sees climate change as a major threat compared with 59 percent in the United States, there is no meaningful national debate over whether global warming is real. 

Yet Germany's energy transition was hardly a straight-line journey of success. 

Hope, Disillusionment, then Hope Renewed

It was a time of far-reaching optimism and ambition in 1998, when German voters thrust a center-left coalition into power. The new government aimed to dramatically increase renewable energy while phasing out nuclear power.

Two years later, lawmakers passed landmark legislation that provided the financial incentives for the coming boom in wind, solar and other renewable energy. The 2000 law was in many ways the starting point for the intense period of progress that followed.

"We thought we could change everything," said Eveline Lemke, a member of Alliance 90/The Greens, the coalition partner that made clean energy a centerpiece of national policy.

The new policies transformed the energy economy, making it cleaner and less centralized. Solar panels popped up on roofs and giant wind turbines sprouted across the countryside. But the growth wasn't sustained. By 2014, the steep cost of renewable energy subsidies produced high electric bills and a conservative backlash. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose center-right government was first elected in 2005, responded by making changes to clean energy laws that slowed development. The momentum faded into disappointment for many Germans.

But last year, spurred by mounting protests and calls for more aggressive climate action, Merkel's government took a series of steps to assert the country's commitment to move away from fossil fuels. 

The German Parliament passed a $60 billion proposal that would, for the first time, impose a tax on nearly all carbon dioxide emissions. It also provided additional subsidies for wind and solar energy, and accelerated the push to cut emissions from automobiles, trucks and airplanes. The Parliament also adopted a plan to shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2038 and provide $45 billion to help coal miners and their communities through the changes. 

Yet environmental activists are quick to note that the new momentum did not originate in the halls of Parliament. It came from the cities and villages, and from the massive Fridays for Future demonstrations inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist—a bubbling up of grassroots enthusiasm that has given renewed hope to many people who were at the heart of the early-2000s push for renewable energy.

That new hope was what I had come to Germany to see.

 

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