June 19, 2012
These wind turbines under construction in Görmin, Germany, are among more than 22,000 installed in that country. Credit: Sean Gallup | Getty
Germany has decided to pursue ambitious greenhouse-gas reductions—while closing down its nuclear plants. Can a heavily industrialized country power its economy with wind turbines and solar panels?
Along a rural road in the western German state of North Rhine–Westphalia lives a farmer named Norbert Leurs. An affable 36-year-old with callused hands, he has two young children and until recently pursued an unremarkable line of work: raising potatoes and pigs. But his newest businesses point to an extraordinary shift in the energy policies of Europe's largest economy. In 2003, a small wind company erected a 70-meter turbine, one of some 22,000 in hundreds of wind farms dotting the German countryside, on a piece of Leurs's potato patch. Leurs gets a 6 percent cut of the electricity sales, which comes to about $9,500 a year. He's considering adding two or three more turbines, each twice as tall as the first.
The profits from those turbines are modest next to what he stands to make on solar panels. In 2005 Leurs learned that the government was requiring the local utility to pay high prices for rooftop solar power. He took out loans, and in stages over the next seven years, he covered his piggery, barn, and house with solar panels—never mind that the skies are often gray and his roofs aren't all optimally oriented. From the resulting 690-kilowatt installation he now collects $280,000 a year, and he expects over $2 million in profits after he pays off his loans.
Stories like Leurs's help explain how Germany was able to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2011, up from 6 percent in 2000. Germany has guaranteed high prices for wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric power, tacking the costs onto electric bills. And players like Leurs and the small power company that built his turbine have installed off-the-shelf technology and locked in profits. For them, it has been remarkably easy being green.
What's coming next won't be so easy. In 2010, the German government declared that it would undertake what has popularly come to be called an Energiewende—an energy turn, or energy revolution. This switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the most ambitious ever attempted by a heavily industrialized country: it aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by midcentury. The goal was challenging, but it was made somewhat easier by the fact that Germany already generated more than 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, which produces almost no greenhouse gases. Then last year, responding to public concern over the post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the eight oldest German nuclear plants shut down right away. A few months later, the government finalized a plan to shut the remaining nine by 2022. Now the Energiewende includes a turn away from Germany's biggest source of low-carbon electricity.
Germany has set itself up for a grand experiment that could have repercussions for all of Europe, which depends heavily on German economic strength. The country must build and use renewable energy technologies at unprecedented scales, at enormous but uncertain cost, while reducing energy use. And it must pull it all off without undercutting industry, which relies on reasonably priced, reliable power. "In a sense, the Energiewende is a political statement without a technical solution," says Stephan Reimelt, CEO of GE Energy Germany. "Germany is forcing itself toward innovation. What this generates is a large industrial laboratory at a size which has never been done before. We will have to try a lot of different technologies to get there."
The major players in the German energy industry are pursuing several strategies at once. To help replace nuclear power, they are racing to install huge wind farms far off the German coast in the North Sea; new transmission infrastructure is being planned to get the power to Germany's industrial regions. At the same time, companies such as Siemens, GE, and RWE, Germany's biggest power producer, are looking for ways to keep factories humming during lulls in wind and solar power. They are searching for cheap, large-scale forms of power storage and hoping that computers can intelligently coördinate what could be millions of distributed power sources.
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