“The conventional energy industry is the biggest corrupter in the world.”
“If there is no change by 2030 there will be a bigger economic crash than the recent banking collapse.”
“The system must change.”
“Renewables are the only solution.”
– Hans-Josef Fell, member of German Parliament, Spokesperson for Energy and Technology, Faction Alliance90/The Greens
While perhaps more strident in tone than some in Germany may be comfortable with, these words from Green party member Hans-Josef Fell express the nation’s determination to lead the world to a new energy economy.
Fell was speaking at a breakfast meeting in Berlin last month for an international group of thirteen environmental journalists and writers, invited as guests of the German Foreign Ministry to spend a week examining German climate and energy policies, and the nation’s commitment to global cooperation on climate protection.
Throughout the discussion, Fell made clear his belief that the path to a sustainable future for Germany, and by implication the rest of the world, will require a major shift in society – a “brave new world” in which fossil fuels play little or no part. That a transition is upon us is beyond our control, but the challenges it presents create unprecedented opportunity if we act boldly and decisively. For Mr. Fell, an aggressive and rapid shift to a low carbon society is the fundamental solution for rebuilding a failed economy, protecting the climate, providing energy security, and creating a sustainable global society.
No small feat, but one Fell believes can be done in Germany within twenty years.
Ask five different experts to spot exactly the point of peak oil and you’ll likely get five different answers. What each answer will have in common, however, is that peak oil is near – either the near future or recent past, but close nonetheless.
Fell places peak oil at 2006, saying supplies will decrease 3% annually, with world oil supplies dwindled by half what they are now by 2030. If nothing is done to reduce global reliance on oil, he projects an economic collapse on a scale much worse than the recent bank failures and global recession. “Fossil energy has no economic future,” says Fell.
No economic burden in renewable energy
Fell disputes any criticism that adopting a low carbon energy economy creates an economic burden and impedes recovery from the global recession. To the contrary. He points to job growth in Germany’s clean energy sector and the faster-than-expected expansion of renewable energy in recent years. Germany is already well ahead of its target of 12% of total generation from renewables by 2012. As of the end of 2008 the figure stands at 15% of the country’s electricity generation from renewables, eliminating 112 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions. If the country can maintain the momentum, one-third of the country’s power will come from renewables by 2020, and 100% by 2050.
The driving force behind this rapid expansion of renewable energy is the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) passed in 2000. The EEG grew out of the 1991 Electricity Feed Act establishing the feed-in tariff as the foundation and driving impetus on all subsequent expansion of renewable energy.
To get an in-depth look at the EEG feed-in tariff, it’s worthwhile to read a 29-page report (pdf) written earlier this year by Fell. The essential elements of the legislation include:
- A guaranteed set amount paid to operators of renewable energy generation plants (wind, solar biomass, landfill and mine gas, hydroelectric, and geothermal). The compensation (feed-in tariff) depends on the source of energy and the year the energy was first made available to the grid; the rate is guaranteed for twenty years.
- Grid operators must give priority access to renewable energy sources over conventional sources, including nuclear, until the grid has reached its capacity. The expansion of renewable energy sources will therefore require the eventual decommissioning of fossil and nuclear power generation.
- No public money funds the tariff, which is financed solely by private investment.
With a feed-in tariff, the price for renewable energy is regulated and the market determines the volume, whereas the opposite is true for a quota, cap or renewable energy portfolio scheme, where the market determines price and the volume of renewable energy is legislated.
Legislating the volume of renewable energy with a quota or portfolio system actually impedes its full development since there is no incentive to expand beyond the mandated quota. There is no such barrier with a feed-in tariff as constructed under the EEG.
The EEG is not a subsidy. It sustains itself from investment from the private sector. By guaranteeing access to the market and set price for a known period of time for renewable energy producers, the EEG is instrumental for the past success and continued optimism for expansion of renewable energy in Germany.
Fell calls renewable energy a “costless” primary energy source – the wind blows, the sun shines, and the water flows. Unlike fossil energy sources, which must be found, extracted, transported and burned, renewable energy has only technology and financing costs associated with its production. Those costs come to an annual investment of €3.2 billion annually, a fraction of the €17 billion in savings the EEG created through reduced fuel purchases and external costs for fossil and nuclear energy in 2008 (Germany passed the Nuclear Exit Law in the 1980’s mandating no new nuclear plants and the decommissioning of all existing plants by 2025 – the law remains in force today despite increased pressure to allow existing nuclear plants to remain in operation to help meet emissions reduction targets.)
On the model of PC’s and cell phones
The power and speed inside the computer from which I write this post was unthinkable twenty years ago; uttering the word “blog” was talking gibberish. Thanks to Moore’s Law, almost the opposite is now true – to not have a computer with at least the speed and power of a 2-year-old iMac is unthinkable, especially for a “blogger.” What seemed impossible or at least unlikely then has become expected and commonplace now.
When all subsidies are eliminated from the production of fossil fuels, and all barriers removed from the expansion of renewable energy, Fell believes a similar version of Moore’s Law will kick in, leading to exponential growth both in clean technology and cleantech jobs.
“With the right framework,” says Fell, in twenty years Germany can “replace fossil energy with renewables” and “rebuild the energy infrastructure and grid.”
The end of the carbon age
We are at a unique time in human history. It is difficult to see beyond our limited perspective, beyond our immediate circumstance into a world transformed. Nonetheless, these are the times in which we now live. In a few short decades our world will be not be what it is today. Despite how much we may wish otherwise, we live at the end of the carbon age.
Economically, environmentally, and for the sake of national and global security, rapid deployment of renewable energy is the only reasonable course of action. For Mr. Fell, pursuing any strategy involving carbon-based technology or policy is ultimately a waste of time (time that we don’t have to waste). Carbon capture and storage is unreliable and leads to problems similar to those with nuclear energy – the inability to guarantee that our waste doesn’t pollute the lives of future generations. Even focusing too much on emissions trading diverts from the task at hand.
For Fell and his colleagues in the Green Party, there is no effective remediation of climate change with fossil fuels, no possibility for long-term international security, and no economic chance for a sustainable future. The solution rests squarely on a new world order, a new energy economy, and a low-carbon society. It’s not the first time humanity has faced a transformative shift based on its energy culture, but this time the challenge is certainly the most important and far-reaching. Getting it wrong is not an option.
With those sentiments firmly planted in our minds, Mr. Fell left our small group of writers and journalists, climbed onto his bicycle, and headed off into the gray, misty Berlin morning toward the Reichstag to continue his work in the German Parliament.
Image Credit: Tom Schueneman