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Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future

Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future

The European nation’s energy revolution has made it a leader in replacing nukes and fossil fuels with wind and solar technology.

Hamburg knew the bombs were coming, and so the prisoners of war and forced laborers had just half a year to build the giant flak bunker. By July 1943 it was finished. A windowless cube of reinforced concrete, with seven-foot-thick walls and an even thicker roof, it towered like a medieval castle above a park near the Elbe River. The guns protruding from its four turrets would sweep Allied bombers from the sky, the Nazis promised, while tens of thousands of citizens sheltered safely behind its impenetrable walls.

Coming in at night from the North Sea just weeks after the bunker was finished, British bombers steered for the spire of St. Nikolai in the center of the city. They dropped clouds of metallic foil strips to throw off German radar and flak gunners. Targeting crowded residential neighborhoods, the bombers ignited an unquenchable firestorm that destroyed half of Hamburg and killed more than 34,000 people. Towering walls of fire created winds so strong that people were blown into the flames. Church bells clanged furiously.

The spire of St. Nikolai, which somehow survived, stands today as a mahnmal—a memorial reminding Germany of the hell brought by the Nazis. The flak bunker is another mahnmal. But now it has a new meaning: An urban development agency (IBA Hamburg) and the municipal utility (Hamburg Energie) have transformed it from a powerful reminder of Germany’s shameful past into a hopeful vision for the future.

In the central space of the bunker, where people once cowered through the firestorm, a six-story, 528,000-gallon hot water tank delivers heat and hot water to some 800 homes in the neighborhood. The water is warmed by burning gas from sewage treatment, by waste heat from a nearby factory, and by solar panels that now cover the roof of the bunker, supported by struts angling from the old gun turrets. The bunker also converts sunlight into electricity; a scaffolding of photovoltaic (PV) panels on its south facade feeds enough juice into the grid to supply a thousand homes. On the north parapet, from which the flak gunners once watched flames rising from the city center, an outdoor café offers a view of the changed skyline. It’s dotted with 17 wind turbines now.

Germany is pioneering an epochal transformation it calls the energiewende—an energy revolution that scientists say all nations must one day complete if a climate disaster is to be averted. Among large industrial nations, Germany is a leader. Last year about 27 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, three times what it got a decade ago and more than twice what the United States gets today. The change accelerated after the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, which led Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare that Germany would shut all 17 of its own reactors by 2022. Nine have been switched off so far, and renewables have more than picked up the slack.

What makes Germany so important to the world, however, is the question of whether it can lead the retreat from fossil fuels. By later this century, scientists say, planet-warming carbon emissions must fall to virtually zero. Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, has promised some of the most aggressive emission cuts—by 2020, a 40 percent cut from 1990 levels, and by 2050, at least 80 percent.

What makes Germany so important, however, is the question of whether it can lead the retreat from fossil fuels.

The fate of those promises hangs in the balance right now. The German revolution has come from the grass roots: Individual citizens and energy genossenschaften—local citizens associations—have made half the investment in renewables. But conventional utilities, which didn’t see the revolution coming, are pressuring Merkel’s government to slow things down. The country still gets far more electricity from coal than from renewables. And the energiewende has an even longer way to go in the transportation and heating sectors, which together emit more carbon dioxide (CO₂) than power plants.

German politicians sometimes compare the energiewende to the Apollo moon landing. But that feat took less than a decade, and most Americans just watched it on TV. The energiewende will take much longer and will involve every single German—more than 1.5 million of them, nearly 2 percent of the population, are selling electricity to the grid right now. “It’s a project for a generation; it’s going to take till 2040 or 2050, and it’s hard,” said Gerd Rosenkranz, a former journalist at Der Spiegel who’s now an analyst at Agora Energiewende, a Berlin think tank. “It’s making electricity more expensive for individual consumers. And still, if you ask people in a poll, Do you want the energiewende? then 90 percent say yes.”

Why? I wondered as I traveled in Germany last spring. Why is the energy future happening here, in a country that was a bombed-out wasteland 70 years ago? And could it happen everywhere?

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

So in the late 1970s, when fossil fuel emissions were blamed for killing German forests with acid rain, the outrage was nationwide. The oil embargo of 1973 had already made Germans, who have very little oil and gas of their own, think about energy. The threat of waldsterben, or forest death, made them think harder.

germany amusement park germany wind park germany pv arrays germany lignite mine germany nuclear coolin tower now amusement ride germany abandoned nuclear control room germany wind turbines















































Government and utilities were pushing nuclear power—but many Germans were pushing back. This was new for them. In the decades after World War II, with a ruined country to rebuild, there had been little appetite for questioning authority or the past. But by the 1970s, the rebuilding was complete, and a new generation was beginning to question the one that had started and lost the war. “There’s a certain rebelliousness that’s a result of the Second World War,” a 50-something man named Josef Pesch told me. “You don’t blindly accept authority.”

Pesch was sitting in a mountaintop restaurant in the Black Forest outside Freiburg. In a snowy clearing just uphill stood two 320-foot-tall wind turbines funded by 521 citizen investors recruited by Pesch—but we weren’t talking about the turbines yet. With an engineer named Dieter Seifried, we were talking about the nuclear reactor that never got built, near the village of Wyhl, 20 miles away on the Rhine River.

The state government had insisted that the reactor had to be built or the lights would go out in Freiburg. But beginning in 1975, local farmers and students occupied the site. In protests that lasted nearly a decade, they forced the government to abandon its plans. It was the first time a nuclear reactor had been stopped in Germany.

The lights didn’t go out, and Freiburg became a solar city. Its branch of the Fraunhofer Institute is a world leader in solar research. Its Solar Settlement, designed by local architect Rolf Disch, who’d been active in the Wyhl protests, includes 50 houses that all produce more energy than they consume. “Wyhl was the starting point,” Seifried said. In 1980 an institute that Seifried co-founded published a study called Energiewende—giving a name to a movement that hadn’t even been born yet.

Picture of a dismantled nuclear facility turned into a theme park in Germany
A nuclear reactor at Kalkar was finished just before the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, Ukraine—and never used. It’s now an amusement park with a ride in what would have been the cooling tower. Fear of nuclear power spurred Germany’s transition.

It wasn’t born of a single fight. But opposition to nuclear power, at a time when few people were talking about climate change, was clearly a decisive factor. I had come to Germany thinking the Germans were foolish to abandon a carbon-free energy source that, until Fukushima, produced a quarter of their electricity. I came away thinking there would have been no energiewende at all without antinuclear sentiment—the fear of meltdown is a much more powerful and immediate motive than the fear of slowly rising temperatures and seas.

All over Germany I heard the same story. From Disch, sitting in his own cylindrical house, which rotates to follow the sun like a sunflower. From Rosenkranz in Berlin, who back in 1980 left physics graduate school for months to occupy the site of a proposed nuclear waste repository. From Luise Neumann-Cosel, who occupied the same site two decades later—and who is now leading a citizens’ initiative to buy the Berlin electric grid. And from Wendelin Einsiedler, a Bavarian dairy farmer who has helped transform his village into a green dynamo.

All of them said Germany had to get off nuclear power and fossil fuels at the same time. “You can’t drive out the devil with Beelzebub,” explained Hans-Josef Fell, a prominent Green Party politician. “Both have to go.” At the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, energy researcher Volker Quaschning put it this way: “Nuclear power affects me personally. Climate change affects my kids. That’s the difference.”

The article is long with many maps and details.
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Source: National Geographic

By: Robert Kunzig  Photographs by Luca Locatelli

Published October 15, 2015


One Response to “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future”

  1. Tom Pendergast says:

    I thought some people using this site might like to learn of an exercise I’ve been developing for high school and college global commerce scholars.

    These are the preliminary briefing remarks.

    Working with other people in your own family, your own local community, at the state or national level, and, yes, internationally, can be a challenge. Especially so when interpersonal or international differences threaten to escalate into challenges, confrontation, controversy, even outright hostility.

    “Conflict Resolution” is the name of the game. When conflicts arise or can be anticipated, I think the people who want to resolve the differences are best advised to acknowledge the concerns of the adversaries. Right up front. Not just a simple rehash. Demonstrate genuine understanding of the concerns being raised. Expand or elaborate on the consequences of not addressing the concerns.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Taking time to acknowledge concerns, at some length, might go far in assuring adversaries that they are truly being listened to and that their concerns are understood in depth.

    Do you have any experiences that would elaborate on this observation? Tell us about some times where you’ve seen this happen . . . and your impressions of the results.

    Those talents are really in short supply but the need is great.

    Here in Licking county, most of us are not concerned with threats from illegal immigration. We seem more concerned about compromised drinking water and polluted air due to the activities of power generating stations, chemical plants and hydrocarbon exploration, production and transportation. How do we resolve such differences between “concerned citizens” and “corporate polluters” or indifferent bureaucrats? I think you’ll agree that a lot of times we’re not very good at “conflict resolution”.

    This is an exercise where you can hone the ability to resolve conflicts, by focusing on one of the most fractious, contentious regions of the world: the Levant. In the process, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation of what it takes to succeed in international business; the business of diplomacy.

    As a thought experiment, just name the countries in the Levant, without even considering the makeup of their populations. You quickly realize, what’s the phrase? “Stop the World! I want to get off!”

    In just the past few years, there have been dramatic changes taking place in the Levant. What are some of the changes there that you’ve noticed?

    Unless addressed effectively, the many competing interests in the area threaten to spin out of control. Yet, if most issues are effectively resolved, the area holds great promise of becoming one of the most attractive and sophisticated places in the world. As once was the case in Lebanon just 50 years ago. But the promise of today is for more than just one small country: it is for the entire eastern Mediterranean, from Libya to Italy and from Malta to Israel.

    Speaking of Israel, one of their government’s cabinet positions is the Ministry of Energy and Water! Actually, they recently changed that to the “Ministry of Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources” [eye roll] but I think I like the old name better!

    Energy and Water! If anything defines conflict in the Levant, that’s it!

    In this exercise, you’ll take on the roles of government or corporate officials with energy responsibilities for the Levant and neighboring countries.

    With the discovery of vast natural gas resources off the coasts of Cyprus, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Egypt – – – reserves of 9 trillion cubic meters off Cyprus, 20 trillion off the coast of Israel and 35 trillion in Egypt’s exclusive economic zone – – – and even oil on shore in Israel, there is an opportunity for energy ministers and others to resolve many long-standing irritations.

    To reap the benefits of this energy bounty, will take courage, perseverance, firm conviction and a firm belief in the prospects for a brighter future. In the face of this crowd, that’s quite a challenge.

    I, for one, think it’s possible. After all, the situation that countries in the Levant are facing today, has many parallels with our own experience in the U.S. over the past 10, 15, 20 or 25 years. At one time, we imported much of our hydrocarbons. Now we import an insignificant amount. In fact, now for the first time in 40 years, we export crude oil! But the countries in the Levant have been virtually totally dependent on imports. Today, however, they face the prospect of abundance. The big difference, of course, is that we don’t face nearly as many conflicts as the countries in the eastern Mediterranean.

    Taking on the responsibility for managing your country’s or your company’s energy policies and strategies will sharpen your business acumen. You’ll employ your analytical and judgement skills and, most crucially, become persuasive. That’s leadership. And it takes a special dedication to communicate clearly as you interact with members of your own organization and with people in other organizations.

    As you flesh out your analyses, set your strategies and negotiate, you’ll be demonstrating how you apply your analytical ability to help solve problems. All of these skills are needed in the orbit of global commerce.

    To gain a little insight as to the nature of issues in the Levant, just consider the situation OPEC is in today. How would you convincingly frame an argument for or against freezing oil production at current levels? It may be fairly easy for Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council to agree to a freeze. But, what about Ecuador, Venezuela, or Nigeria? And, what about Iran?

    Recently, Qatar’s energy and industry minister Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada said “The continuous efforts of the Qatari government have been instrumental in promoting dialogue among all oil producers to support the Doha initiative, helping the stabilization of (the) oil market to the interest of all.” I like that. He sets the stage to promote dialogue with the goal of stabilization that will benefit everyone. A tremendous goal. And nobody thinks it will be easy to get there. But they will try.

    In your packet of materials, you’ll find information on hydrocarbon issues in the Levant that are known to all (though perhaps not appreciated to equal degrees!). Public knowledge. Try to familiarize yourself with as much as you can, especially for the country or company that you represent. Look beyond the materials in your packets. By all means, cultivate friendships with people on campus who come from the Levant or the Middle East, and Europe too. They will help you gain deeper insights in the most surprising, unexpected and delightful ways.

    First, you’ll see a list of area ministers as well as some of the companies that are active in the exploration and development of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Choose one or two that you’d like to represent.

    Yuval Steinitz, Minister of Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources
    Joseph Paritzky, Former Minister of Energy & National Infrastructure of Israel
    Uzi Landau, former Minister of Energy and Water
    Silvan Shalom, current (2016-) Minister of Energy and Water . . . etc.

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