Climate change and sources of renewable energy haven’t always been prioritized topics in research, policy discussion or media coverage. Just ask Ursula Sladek, a resident of the German town of Schönau, who spearheaded what was considered a revolutionary local movement to change the way that energy was generated in her small town. In response to the Chernobyl nuclear power-plant disaster in 1986, Sladek and many of her neighbours challenged the conventional energy system and their local utility company, to ensure that this type of nuclear catastrophe would not jeopardize their safety again.
Conducting research on the in’s and out’s of power generators and electrical grids, Sladek and fellow proponents of renewable energy successfully transformed the traditional German energy model in Schönau. In doing so, they unintentionally helped spark a nationwide technological and political movement called the Energiewende, or Energy Revolution.
The Energy Revolution began moving Germany away from a centralized power system to a decentralized model that utilized renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind power. A centralized power system means that electricity flows in one direction from a plant to its users, whereas the decentralized model requires electricity to flow in both directions from many small power generators into the grid, and from the grid to consumers.
But before the town of Schönau could control its own energy production, it’s residents had to successfully raise $2.2 million to buy out the local power plant. By 1996, the “energy rebels”, as they became known, formed the Schönau Electrical Power Co. and Sladek became its President. Using a small network of hydroelectric dams and thousands of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, the residents of Schönau now produce their own energy without the typical monopoly of a large electrical utility company. Using this system, the town generates more electricity on sunny days than required to supply the village of about 2,500 residents.
While the town of Schönau was able to set the Energy Revolution in motion, it quickly became obvious that its renewable overtake could easily be an isolated success. Decentralized power systems must be flexible enough to handle varying power loads from renewable sources, so without new technologies to improve renewable energy’s integration into existing electrical grids, there remained many technological hurdles in Germany. Another important factor was that not all towns would be able to afford buying out their local grid. The low demand for renewable technology like solar panels at the time, meant that generating renewable energy was extremely expensive as no solar manufacturer would increase its production to lower prices.
That didn’t stop other German towns from pushing the boundaries for renewable power integration however, particularly since many Germans were proponents of the concept of Gröppel – independence from large, monopolizing companies. In 1993, Hans-Josef Fell was using his educational background as a physicist and his position as a local politician to successfully draft legislation that would promote the use of renewable energy sources in his town of Hammelburg. Hammelburg adopted the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) system, which allowed homeowners with solar panels to receive payment for the extra power they generated. The system created incentive for the use of solar panels by ensuring that participating homeowners would be compensated for more than the cost of their solar installation, and those participants were still able to use power from the grid on days when it wasn’t sunny. The FiT was also guaranteed for 20 years, so that residents would feel that this was a secure investment.
The FiT movement attained national reach when Fell became a member of the Green Party in German national parliament, where he was tasked with drafting an energy policy to encourage the uptake of renewables and to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Adopted in 2000 and titled the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), the new law created a national FiT that was paid for by a monthly surcharge on utility bills. This sparked lawmakers’ mandates to phase out nuclear power generation in Germany.
Just two years after the EEG became law, the percentage of renewable power on the German grid doubled to 5%, later increasing to 10% by 2007. Continuing to surpass the percentages of renewable energy that critics predicted would overload and crash the system, 50% of all renewable power generation was coming from citizens. Germany’s “Big Four” utilities meanwhile, were generating just 6.5% of the power. The new renewable targets for Germany are now up to 80% by 2050.
Germany’s high demand for solar energy resulted in increased global production, causing the price tag on solar panels to drop worldwide. The resulting market competition also sparked an increase in research and innovation, particularly in Stuttgart, Germany – the birthplace of the automobile and the nation’s leading area for patent applications.
What has become most apparent to researchers is that the German grid now needs to be overhauled to accommodate the two-directional flow of energy from renewable power generation. German engineers have consequently been developing bidirectional transformers, creating superconducting cables to minimize energy loss and instituting power-to-gas systems to store excess electrical generation as hydrogen or methane. As of 2013, German businesses were now exporting $30 billion in renewable technologies.
Even Siemens, the industrial company that built Germany’s first nuclear power plant, has since announced that it is focusing its efforts on the global offshore wind-power market, with the installation of 80 giant wind turbines in the North Sea. This system will generate enough energy production to power 300,000 households. The next phase of Germany’s Energy Revolution will introduce an “Electricity Autobahn”, which will use three high-voltage direct current transmission lines to carry electricity over 2,000 miles from wind farms in the North Sea to Germany’s manufacturing region. The last German reactor is scheduled to close in 2022.
Some 30 years after the town of Schönau took energy production into its own hands, Germany now has almost 25,000 wind turbines and over one million rooftop solar systems. One-quarter of Germany’s power now comes from renewable sources – the highest percentage of any industrialized nation.
Most significantly, Germany’s Energy Revolution has influenced countries around the globe. Over 50 countries, for example, have since adopted their own versions of the FiT system. But the unique environmental, political, social and technological climate of individual nations means that unfortunately, there is no universal Energy Revolution that will provide us with all the answers needed to create environmentally responsible energy worldwide. Nonetheless, case studies like this demonstrate that with the will to make scientifically and technologically-informed changes, we can make a difference.
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