Monday, October 18, 2010

Solar Lessons from Germany’s Green Prophet

If solar energy was a racehorse, Germany has left the rest of the world in the dust.   The tiny, northern latitude county, not much bigger than Colorado, added a record 8 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy capacity last year alone.  Its total solar generation capacity is now 18 GW, five times greater than Spain, the world’s next largest producer, with 3.5 GW.  By comparison, Colorado has not yet reached the 1 GW mark, as of this writing.

Nationally, Colorado ranks 4th behind California, New Jersey and Nevada, with 59 megawatts (a MW is 1/1,000th of a GW) of combined grid-tied solar photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power generation. Much of this (nearly 40%) was installed in 2009.

Why are Colorado, and the United States, so far behind in the solar energy race? 

One difference is Hermann Scheer.  Called "hero for a green century", Scheer was a member of the German Parliament for three decades and president of the European Association for Renewable Energy.  He died this fall, leaving a legacy that transformed Germany into the greatest solar power on earth despite its small size, northern latitudes and cold, rainy climate.

Solar Energy Limitless

In an interview with Amy Goodman shortly before his death, Scheer described how he and a few visionaries in German Parliament passed the Renewable Energy Act of 2000.  The Act was truly revolutionary, said Scheer “because it allows anyone who wants to invest in distributed renewable energy, with no cap or need to get permission from utility companies”. The law has three essential elements:

1.    Guaranteed access to the grid for all investor/producers:
2.    Guaranteed return that provides investment security (called a Feed-in Tariff or “FIT”) set very precisely, in order to avoid discrimination.
3.    No cap on how much renewable energy generation could be installed. 

Germany’s Renewable Energy Act created investment autonomy for every interested homeowner, small and large business owner, cooperative, local municipality, local utility and community to become a renewable energy producer and investor. 

In ten short years, over 45,000 MW of renewable energy—tens of thousands of small scale, distributed PV, wind, biogas and small hydro generation power plants – were installed.  By comparison, big power companies had installed less than 10 MW.

This was accomplished despite strong opposition from government and industry.  “The government behaved like most governments” said Scheer, “Like partners and assistants to the conventional power structure”.

Germany has proven that a mix of small-scale renewables can work and have tremendous economic benefits.  “Nobody is against renewable energy in Germany anymore, people want it. Despite all the misinformation campaigns, 90% of the people want renewables”, said Scheer. 

The shift must come from local, municipal and regional efforts —“because it is a revolution, a technological revolution”, said Scheer.   He compared renewable energy to the information technology revolution in the 1980’s when companies like IBM thought the future was in big, highly centralized computers. “They were the experts, like our energy experts today”, said Scheer. “The big corporations totally underestimated the demand from a few big computers, to many millions of small computers.  The same with renewable energy technology today”.

“We’re in a race between centralized and decentralized, energy monopoly and energy democracy”, said Scheer.  “The mobilization of society is most important and as soon as people realize they can’t wait for the government or utilities, but can do it themselves, together in cooperatives or municipalities or individually, it will change”.

People need to act to overcome administrative and bureaucratic barriers that hinder renewable energy. “The rules favoring conventional energy and blocking decentralized renewable energy need to be exposed and dismantled”, said Scheer. 

Reason for Hope

Germany has proven that it’s possible to make a rapid shift to renewable energy. “Now we have a real democratic revolution”, said Scheer, “More than a hundred German cities and counties have pledged to become 100% renewable by or before 2015 and the number increases from month to month”.

According to Scheer, “investment spurred demand which enabled the industrial base to expand which brought an infusion of green jobs.  A new ecological, economic and democratic movement was born!”

Also see: 
Watch HS's incredibly powerful talk given in Silicon Valley in 2007 (1 hr. 27 min. but worth every minute!)