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Eye on the News

Charles C. Johnson
Green Glitches in Germany
Energy angst abroad and confusion at home
12 April 2010

In Germany, Weltschmerz is the sadness one feels when comparing the way the world is to the way it ought to be. German environmentalists must be suffering a profound case of it as not-in-my-backyard protests derail industry- and government-planned alternative-energy projects. Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz, or EEG) was supposed to help the German Ministry for the Environment achieve its goal of renewables producing 30 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020. Instead, the EEG has met with widespread opposition.

Crucial to the EEG is a “feed-in” scheme, hailed by greens the world over, which encourages ordinary German households to become energy producers. Under the EEG, any German has the right to feed unlimited electricity—from home-based windmills or solar panels, for example—into the country’s grid. Government-run utilities are then required to buy this energy from the households at a government-determined price. That price, which includes a profit for the households, is locked in under a 20-year contract. In theory, every individual could run a power plant, and every backyard could produce clean, renewable energy.

But in reality, every individual also has a neighbor who doesn’t want a power plant next door. With the help of social-networking websites, Germans—Europe’s most litigious people—have been using the country’s arcane ballot initiatives to delay or shut down their neighbors’ planned energy investments.

Nor is the EEG Germany’s only ill-advised energy regulation. Another recent law requires new German homes to meet 10 percent of their heating needs with renewable energy. But the carbon-emission reductions that this measure achieves are effectively nonexistent, according to the journal Energy Policy. Further, the law’s incentives to use only certain kinds of renewables wind up freezing technology in an industry that needs to be more dynamic.

The worst obstacle to Germany’s grand plans is physics itself. A solar panel converts only 11 percent of the solar energy that it receives into usable energy, while coal and natural gas facilities convert around 40 percent of their fuel into electricity. Vast panel arrays are the only way to make solar economical: a single solar module on a very sunny day in the Sahara can create only enough energy to power one 75-watt lightbulb—and Germany on the brightest of days receives just half the sunlight that the Sahara does.

The government’s intentions were good. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had hoped that a diversification of the country’s energy portfolio would make it less dependent on Russia, from which Germany buys a third of its oil and gas. And it’s true that unless renewables pick up the slack, Germany will become even more dependent on Russia for its fuel. But that’s partly Germany’s own fault: by 2020, it intends to phase out its 17 nuclear power plants, which now supply about a quarter of the nation’s electricity and provide the only form of renewable energy capable of meeting German demand.

Greens had promised that Germany would be a Mecca for energy investment, but instead it has become a Potemkin village—fooling foreign governments into believing that its economy is a model for the future. President Obama seems to be among those taken in. “We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it,” he told a joint session of Congress in February. The president has indulged in his own brand of environmental fooling, trying to persuade Americans to support his wasteful cap-and-trade bill and as much as $5 billion in tax credits for weatherization schemes like insulating homes for the winter. Obama calls this a “real stimulus.” The Germans have another word for it: Volksverdummung, a deliberate deception of the public.

Charles C. Johnson is a writer living in Los Angeles, where he attends Claremont McKenna.

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