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Germany: Full speed ahead on renewables

Germany forges ahead with ambitious renewable energy plans

Germany’s rail corridors are lined with medium-size photovoltaic installations.

A cluster of wind turbines is barely visible in the lower righthand corner of the image.

By Bob Berwyn

MUNICH, GERMANY — It’s been a whirlwind week of travels here in the ‘old country’ where I grew up, but as I scan the news from back home in the USA and Colorado about the politics of renewable energy, I’m still thinking about what I saw as we flew into Frankfurt a little more than a week ago.

The U.S. Senate is playing politics with wind power, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he would do away with even the most harmless way to promote renewable power, the so-called wind energy production tax credits.

Meanwhile, even from 30,000 feet, the change in the German landscape is striking — hundreds, and even thousands, of power-generating wind turbines dot the countryside, in small clusters near villages, in lines along ridge tops, and in seemingly random clumps around some of the larger cities.

It all adds up to about 29,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply 8 percent of the industrial country’s needs, and Germany has been adding new wind capacity at a healthy rate.

They have to, deciding last year to completely back away from nuclear power production after the Fukushima disaster.

What struck me most was the pattern of development, which is clearly based on a decentralized model, producing electricity close to where it’s needed and consumed, rather than on vast wind or solar plantations far from cities.

The same holds true for solar power. During the train ride from Frankfurt to Austria, we say dozens of small and medium-size photovoltaic installations, some in the railroad right-of-way, some along the edges of farm fields and others in what looked to be community owned property near towns.

Rather than simply talking and planning, Germany has built  political consensus and formed a social pact to forge ahead with renewable energy development, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt the country’s economy.

Just last May, during a sunny spell, those solar installations helped Germany set a world record for solar power production, totaling 22 gigawatts — a third of the country’s peak electricity needs on a Friday, and half on the following Saturday, when electricity needs are somewhat lower.

In 2011, about 20 percent of the country’s total energy came from renewable sources; about 70 percent of that was supported by so-called feed-in tariffs, a policy mechanism that encourages the use of renewable energy by providing long-term contracts to renewable energy producers, usually based on the cost of generation.

The medium-term goal is to produce 35 percent of the country’s electricity via renewables by 2020, a goal that has already been reached in smaller Austria.

All of this is to say that making the switch to renewable energy isn’t as hard as some fossil fuel dinosaurs would have you believe. Certainly there’s room to debate the best way to get there, but it should be clear by now that it’s a desirable goal. All it takes is a little social and political will.

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