When you think of places with great potential for solar energy, what comes to mind? Maybe the American Southwest, perhaps the Middle East. What probably doesn’t come to mind is Germany — and yet Germany is leading a global revolution in renewable energy, with solar playing a key part.
In the U.S., we now get 6 percent of our energy from renewables, which is exactly where Germany was in 2000. And then it passed the Renewable Energy Act and jumpstarted a movement known as Energiewende. Twelve years later, Germany gets over 25 percent of its energy from renewables and it is surpassing all of its benchmarks to be 80 percent renewable-powered by 2050.
In his new book, Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It, Osha Gray Davidson explains how Germany made such a significant leap. Here are some shocking numbers he breaks down in the book:
[Osha Gray Davidson:] "25 percent of Germany’s electricity now comes from solar, wind and biomass. A third of the world’s installed solar capacity is found in Germany, a nation that gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Alaska. A whopping 65 percent of the country’s total renewable power capacity is now owned by individuals, cooperatives and communities, leaving Germany’s once all-powerful utilities with just a sliver (6.5 percent) of this burgeoning sector..."
..."The main driver in Germany was citizens’ groups who wanted out of nuclear power, that was one of the very first issues. Ursula Sladek was a school teacher and her husband was a village doctor when Chernobyl blew and all the radioactive fallout fell on their area, they were in one of the most heavily contaminated areas. Ursula didn’t want to be part of a nuclear society anymore and went to the utility which was a monopoly back then and said 'we don’t want you to use nuclear anymore' — she had gotten a group of friends and neighbors together. And the utility said, 'ha, we don’t care what you want.'
"From that, Ursula and this group in town now run the largest green cooperative in Germany and they have 180,000 households and business members of their little company in this tiny town in the Black Forest.
"I always ask 'What lessons can Americans learn?' And the overwhelming theme was, 'just start going it, that’s what we did.' And Ursula is such a great example of that. It took them 10 years in this David and Goliath battle with their utility. As she’s pointed out, 'we didn’t shut down a single nuke plant, and that was all we were trying to do. But we’ve helped start a renewable energy revolution.'
"When I asked her about what we Americans could learn, she didn’t answer at first and she looked around at this office she was in, the headquarters with solar panels on the roof and she said, 'This is something that is very American isn’t it? You Americans are people who say we can do it — we can do it ourselves.'
"She in fact was inspired by Jimmy Carter, a lot of the people who started the Energiewende in Germany, including Hans-Josef Fell who was the main author of the Renewable Energy Act, he was inspired by Jimmy Carter and the renewable energy revolution that he tried to start here in the U.S. by putting solar panels on the roof of the White House and funding solar projects throughout the country and wind projects. Fell said he looked around and saw pictures of all of that and wondered why they couldn’t have that in Germany. And now the situation is simply reversed.
"We did start down that road, and when Reagan came in a decision was made to scuttle that and to go back to dependence on fossil fuels.
"I think that if Americans now take a look at Germany and see what they’ve done and start doing that now here, yes, I think we can get to where Germany is and in fact the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado, the main government technology center for renewable energies, came out with a report this past year that said by the year 2050 the U.S. could be getting 80 percent of our power from renewables; by coincidence, that’s exactly what Germany’s goal is.
"We obviously have the resources to do it. So I think it’s a matter of political will and also empowerment. A lot of Americans feel there is nothing they can do because of all these big companies — well, I don’t have much patience for that. The Germans could have said the same thing, but they rolled up their sleeves and started taking action at a local level and eventually that forced political leaders to respond.
"So, we shouldn’t whine about it — we should get busy and do it."
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