German Chancellor Angela Merkel was trained as quantum chemist, and as a doctoral candidate studied subatomic reactions, so it was no surprise that as she started her political career she became an outspoken advocate for nuclear power. In 2010, five years into her term as Germany’s leader, Merkel called for extending the operating lives of Germany’s aging reactors by an average of 15 years.
But, like much of the world, her views on nuclear power changed suddenly on March 11, 2011 when a hydrogen explosion demolished the containment building surrounding Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Watching television coverage of the tsunami’s damage to the nuclear reactor, a shaken Merkel reportedly turned to an aide and said, “It’s over.”
As a scientist, she realized the official predictions about the probability of a disaster had been fundamentally flawed. Merkel confessed that the Fukushima disaster “forever changed the way we define risk.”
Within weeks of the Fukushima meltdown, Merkel unveiled a radical plan to decommission Germany’s 17 reactors, reduce use of fossil fuels, and fast-track approval of renewable energy projects. The goal was to make “green power” Germany’s major energy source by 2030. Merkel called the proposal die Energiewende – the “energy turn.”
With reactors set to shut down by 2022, Germany’s challenge is to meet baseload demand with energy drawn from solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal sources. The goal: to sustainably generate 35 percent of Germany’s power by 2020 and 80-plus percent by 2050, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by mid-century.
When Merkel made her stunning announcement, about 41 percent of Germany’s 81 gigawatts of energy generating capacity came from coal, 23 percent from nuclear, and 20 percent from renewables. Wasting no time, Merkel flew to the Baltic coast on May 2, 2011 to inaugurate the country’s first offshore wind farm. As Merkel pressed a button, 21 gargantuan wind turbines stirred to life 16 kilometers out at sea, filling the German grid with enough new electricity to power 50,000 homes.
Merkel’s vision of a green Germany was hastened by the Renewable Energy Act, which guarantees rewards for anyone who contributes “green electricity” to the grid. Under a “feed-in tariff” system, homeowners are paid top dollar for their excess power. This premium (financed by a 15 percent surcharge on energy bills) set off a “feed-in frenzy” as homeowners, farmers, and towns raced to take power generation into their own hands. “Rooftop rebates” for a four-person home can generate $220 annually. More than half of Germany’s 50,000 renewable megawatts now come from Stormrebellen (“electricity rebels”).
In just two years, these payments-for-power helped add more than 10,000 MW of distributed photovoltaic (PV) power. In 2011, solar PV was generating 3 percent of Germany’s electricity – a 60 percent increase from just the year before. During the past decade, Germany has added 300,000 “green collar” jobs as wind farms blossomed along coasts and mountaintops and solar panels proliferated across rooftops.
In the same time the US installed 890 MW of PV panels, Germany added 7,408 MW of PV power. German homeowners now produce 39 percent of the nation’s PV power while farmers generate another 21 percent. In 2011, the Bavarian farming village of Wildpoldsried produced 321 times more renewable energy than its residents needed. The local farmers sold the excess power and reaped a financial harvest of $5.7 million.
Across Germany, corporate control of power is being replaced by citizen ownership (Bürgerbeteiligung) as “power to the people” evolves from a wistful cliché to a working reality. Renewable energy advocate Paul Gipe marvels at “how Jeffersonian the Bürgerbeteiligung movement has become in democratizing electricity generation.”
In the wake of Fukushima, 65 other countries have announced plans to follow Germany’s lead. Even the Oil Capital of Earth is paying heed. According to Gipe, “the conservative, oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has proposed one of the most sweeping and massive moves to renewable energy on the planet.” Gipe predicts the Saudis’ decision to “go solar” might prompt US and Canadian policymakers “to reconsider their recalcitrance toward the renewable revolution sweeping the globe.”
If – or when – they do, they might want to look to Chancellor Merkel for advice.
Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of the new book Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green).
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.