Straight talking: What we can all learn from the German Energiewende

While every aspect of Germany's Energiewende -- the transition to increasing dependence on renewables in energy supply -- has been the subject of much debate both domestically and internationally, we should keep in mind that Germany is the first major industrialised country to undertake such an energy "transformation".

At a conference in Berlin earlier this year, German foreign minister Frank Steinmeier asked what the word for Energiwende was in English or Spanish, French or Chinese? Answer: Energiewende. Point taken.

As was the case with both wind and solar technologies, Germany is once again trailblazing for the rest of us. It doesn't always get everything right the first time, and every little detail is hotly debated publicly and in depth. You have to admire the extent to which the country puts itself out there and invites criticism. But rather than being either a result of naivete or altruism, I think it is far more the result of an analysis that says that public and political support is the sine qua non for success in an endeavour with such a broad scope in a democracy; and ultimately, with most other forms of government as well.

The first lesson for the rest of us, then, is that political commitment is fundamental, and without it you won't get very far. For more than a decade, it has been obvious to party politicians of all stripes in Germany that the public commitment and support for the shift away from nuclear and towards renewables, and in favour of climate protection, was so strong that no party could succeed without it; and indeed that has been reflected in the last several governments.

Grasp public support

While there are similar levels of public support for these goals in a growing number of countries, they have seldom manifested in reflecting this politically, and politicians have rarely shown the leadership to reach out and grasp that public support as a central part of their platforms. Both need to happen.

Whether you believe that people elect the government they deserve (de Maistre); or that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance (Curran), these issues will only become central to the political debate in a country when the people demand it sufficiently that politicians pay consequences for ignoring it.

Other key areas where we can learn from the Energiewende include:

  • The need for clear targets and timetables with a political stamp on them, and which are clearly communicated to the public - over and over again.
  • Built-in reviews and checks that do not threaten to dismantle the initiative but set clear timeframes within which issues can be addressed.
  • Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency - at least as important as renewable energy, but it has to be hammered home over and over again; which is why the average German household pays less than the average US household in power bills, even though the prices in Germany are generally two or three times as high.
  • Flexible implementation - allowing for rapid adjustments in response to macro-economic changes, changes in technology markets, or unintended consequences. The latter especially require quick corrective measures.
  • Pay close attention to the markets - probably the most difficult issue the Energiewende has had to face is the gigawatts of very expensive PV that got locked in after the market had shifted, and with which German ratepayers will be saddled for decades. Since Germany has paid the price, creating the markets which brought the prices down in the first place, the rest of us can avoid such costs in future.
  • Recognise that there will be winners and losers - and restrain the winners from overcharging and work with the losers to help them change (if they will).
  • Continuous public and political education about the nature and depth of the transformation - it's not just "adding" renewable energy to the power system, it's a transformation of the entire energy system, and the people have to "own" it if it is to work.

This could be a much longer list, and Germany has its own unique history and democracy; all of these "lessons" will play out differently in other countries.

As I get older, I wonder if in fact it is possible to learn from others' mistakes sufficiently to avoid them. My experience is that one doesn't; although hopefully one can recognise this as you're in the act of making the same mistakes; which will make the identification of both problem and solution much quicker. Maybe afterwards, you can remember to thank Germany for blazing the trail.

Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council

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