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Leading light

A country’s approach to solving its energy needs can foster innovation and influence worldwide trends. Take Germany: its renewable energy reforms are setting a new global benchmark.

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  • 1. April 2016

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On a lovely Sunday in Germany, August, 23rd 2015, at exactly 1PM an unprecedented record was set: Renewable energy sources – wind, solar, water power, and biomass accounted for a whopping 84 per cent of all power consumed in the country. Media, politicians and experts – already used to similar records from past years were ecstatic nonetheless: The once controversial Teutonic project of Energiewende, or "Energy Transition" turned out to work just fine in practice. Germany had proved that renewable energy could almost fully power a developed, industrialised nation.

“The German Energy Transition has a crucial role to play in the realisation of a global low-carbon economy", says Caio Koch-Weser, Chair of the Supervisory Board of the European Climate Foundation: "If one of the world’s major economies is able to reconcile emission reductions and economic growth, this sends an important signal to other nations." Done well, he believes, Germany's of Energiewende can be a role model for sustainable change, and drive the investment and innovation needed for a successful global low-carbon transition.

The of Energiewende began NOT – as many outside Germany believe – with Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan. Rather its roots go back much further: Stickers saying "Atomkraft – Nein Danke" ("Nuclear power – no thanks") are part of the collective memory of all Germans who lived through the late 1960s’ student rebellion and its powerful anti-nuclear energy campaign. The oil crises of the 1970s were followed by the nuclear meltdown at Tchernobyl in Ukraine. At that point, Germany started seriously looking toward a renewable future.

The term Energiewende was established in a study from 1980. Today it stands for targets for CO2 emissions reduction, phasing out of nuclear power and greater energy efficiency. Germany has grown its use of renewables from 4 percent of all power generated in 1990 to 28 percent in 2014. There’s also been a sharp increase in citizen-owned projects; farmers began building wind turbines on their properties and homeowners fixed solar panels onto their roofs.

Lawmakers played an important part in this: In 2000 the Renewable Energy Act started "a technology competition with wind energy and solar power as the greatest beneficiaries", says Patrick Graichen, Director of Agora Energiewende, the country's leading think tank on the topic. For him the of Energiewende is a gift to the world: “Germany installed hundreds of thousands of solar power plants. when prices were still high. That was very expensive and German power consumers are still paying for it.” But this led to the development of a global solar industry, and consequently the price of solar power has declined at an incredible pace. "Countries that build new solar plants today can produce power at a much lower cost than with new plants powered by coal, gas, or nuclear energy.”

Other countries can learn from Germany's early missteps: Policy makers were slow to react to the plummeting price of solar power arrays. As a result financial incentives were too high for some time. Also many of the country's energy companies set their sights on coal for too long. They are now suffering because of the boom in cheap wind and solar power, says Graichen. Energy providers in other parts of the world will not want to repeat this mistake.

Experts say that the Energiewende has cost 100 billion Euros until now. But Germany demonstrated that even this gigantic effort has not ruined the country - so others feel encouraged to follow: Morocco, Brazil, India, China, and even Saudi Arabia are betting on ambitious renewable energy projects - often with the help of German engineers, and always explicitely citing the Teutonic model. Klaus Toepfer, Ex-Minister of Environment consequently calls Energierwende "the most successful foreign aid program" ever. It seems rather likely that history will prove him right.