Renewable energy is nothing to get spooked about. In fact, many view it as the fix we so desperately need – to get off dirty petroleum products and turn down the thermostat on our warming planet. In addition to lowering our carbon footprint, renewables offer multiple benefits: they increase energy choices for consumers, lower reliance on an increasingly unstable global oil market and clear the air of toxic smokestack and tailpipe emissions. Yet, naysayers look towards Germany’s energiewende, or energy transition, as an example of “what not to do” here in the United States. They say Germany’s rapid transition to renewable energy has been bad for consumers, bad for the German economy and has actually cost more than fossil use.
Although the devastating events in Fukushima certainly put the brick on the gas pedal of Germany’s energiewende, it had been humming along for several decades. Germany began seriously rethinking its energy mix after the 1970s oil embargo and the Chernobyl disaster. Today, thanks to its policies, Germany leads the world in solar installations, even though it is as sunny as Alaska. In addition to lowering its dependence on foreign energy sources, renewables haven’t been bad for Germany’s bottom line either. Despite cutting greenhouse gases 22 percent since 1991, the German economy has grown 28 percent in the same time period.
But is a U.S. energiewiende possible? The United States actually has several resource advantages over Germany. Not only does the United States have enormous wind and solar resources, but geothermal, hydro and biomass are huge potential sources as well. As one of the world’s largest agricultural producers, we have significant waste streams that can be tapped for renewable energy, such as agricultural residues, manure, and food processing waste. These are in addition to our landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and organic wastes, which could all be tapped for renewable energy.
Nevertheless, with Germany leading the pack of developed nations on renewable capacity, it is evident that there are some growing pains in any energy transition. German utilities that didn’t adapt quickly have felt the pain. But that does not make the transition any less necessary. It will be difficult to transition away from an existing electricity system that has been in use for over 100 years. Perhaps most of all, it will take considerable political will. Just last year, the U.S. oil and gas industry received taxpayer-funded subsidies to the tune of $4.8 billion, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. In return, Open Secrets.org reports that the oil industry has poured $357 million into campaigns and another $1.4 billion into lobbying over the last 15 years.
The intermittent nature of many renewables is a significant concern, but grid reliability in Germany has actually improved since the implementation of energiewende, and energy storage technologies have advanced considerably. Additionally, renewable component costs have dropped significantly -- solar panel prices have dropped an astonishing 70 percent in the past five years, and wind is now cost-competitive with new coal installations. Larger economies of scale will push prices down even further.
In the United States, utilities are already moving forward with utility-scale renewable projects for solar and offshore wind. In transportation fuels, two plants are already converting agricultural waste into liquid fuel for cars and buses. Not only will these investments wean us off fossil energy – they have the potential to revitalize American manufacturing and create jobs across the country. From the ‘silicon prairie’ to Silicon Valley, companies are jumping into the renewable world, with massive investments in everything from electric car batteries to wind turbine production. In Germany, jobs in the renewable energy sector are now double those in fossil energy.
The time is ripe for an energy transition here in the United States. Americans, increasingly, are demanding it. But will our elected officials make the choices that support this transition? Or will they continue to keep the best interests of the powerful few front and center?
Werner serves as executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, DC - a non-profit education and policy organization. Stolark is a policy fellow covering Sustainable Biomass, Bioenergy, Farms and Forests at EESI.