Technology Review has a look at Germany's quest to move to 100% renewable energy - The Great German Energy Experiment.
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. ...
Despite the costs, Germany could greatly benefit from its grand experiment. In the past decade, the country has nurtured not only wind and solar power but less-heralded energy technologies such as management software and efficient industrial processes. Taken together, these "green" technologies have created an export industry that's worth $12 billion—and is poised for still more growth, according to Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Berlin Free University. Government policies could provide further incentives to develop and deploy new technologies. "That is know-how that you can sell," Schreurs says. "The way for Germany to compete in the long run is to become the most energy-efficient and resource-efficient market, and to expand on an export market in the process."
If Germany succeeds in making the transition, it could provide a workable blueprint for other industrial nations, many of which are also likely to face pressures to transform their energy consumption. "This Energiewende is being watched very closely. If it works in Germany, it will be a template for other countries," says Graham Weale, chief economist at RWE, which is grappling with how to shut its nuclear power plants while keeping the lights on.