Guest Post by Graham Palmer. Graham recently published the book “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” (“Springer Briefs in Energy” series).
Germany’s Energiewende as a model for Australian climate policy? A critical review.
Graham Palmer, June 2014
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarised opinions. Energiewende – literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” – has two main elements – a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the penetration of renewable energy via a feed-in tariff (FiT) system. The FiT scheme, originally introduced in 1991 and enshrined in the EEG Act, is based on the principle of protecting renewable investors with a guaranteed grid connection and revenue, with differing returns based on the type of renewable generator. In theory, this was also supposed to encourage innovation, although most of the benefits have come through volume manufacture driving prices down the cost curve, and the benefits of “learning by doing”.
But for Germany, this is about much more than their national energy policy. This is Germany’s Apollo space program. If it were to work, Germany would be the world leader in renewables integration with a potential multi-billion Euro export industry. But unlike the essentially technical challenge of putting man on the Moon, the Energiewende faces unprecedented challenges beyond merely the technical. A nation’s standard of living is underpin by the capital and labour productivity of its energy systems, along with a sufficiently high net-energy.
While the planned German nuclear exit following Fukushima was, at face value, an over-reaction given the lack of seismic and tsunami risk, German ambivalence towards nuclear has been building since the 1970s. The student protests of the late 1960s produced a fusion of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, and anti-nuclear, where nuclear power became aligned with distrust of capitalism and militarism. The “laughing sun” symbol appeared everywhere – Atomkraft? Nein Danke (Nuclear power? No thanks!) – and became recognizable as an expression of “polite dissent” as it became cool to be anti-nuclear .
This alignment was not altogether surprising – the legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War, West Berlin as the focal point of the Cold War, with Germany hosting NATO Cruise and Pershing missiles along with American, British and French forces. These fears became entrenched through anti-nuclear activism by scientists such as Klaus Traube Traube, who was originally a proponent of nuclear power, but became one of the most prominent and influential critics . And it was also the local “Citizens’ Initiatives” organised around local issues that formed the basis of the grassroots campaigns, such as opposition to the siting of a new nuclear power plant in the wine-growing village of Wyhl in 1975 .
Similarly, the Australian anti-nuclear movement grew out of the 1960s protest movement but had a unique Australian flavour . This was the period of the Vietnam War, land rights for Aboriginal people, French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll, the aftermath of Maralinga weapons tests, and the hero of the left, Gough Whitlam. This was also the period before the functional separation of state-sponsored weapons programs and commercial nuclear vendors – the choice of the British Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) for the proposed Jervis Bay nuclear power plant (NPP) in the late 1960s, together with the reluctance to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, suggested a strategy of retaining a future option for dual-use capability .
Upon winning government in 1972, Whitlam signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), banned nuclear power, and introduced universal higher education. Suddenly, it became de rigueur in academia and the political left to oppose nuclear power. This earlier period defined Australian anti-nuclear canon, which remained as unchallenged doctrine for decades. Jim Green’s  introduction of the term “radiation racism” in the late 1990s, representing a drawing together of Green-left activism, uranium mining, Aboriginal land rights, weapons testing, and nuclear power, typifies this enduring but now archaic narrative.
But it was the uncontrolled radioactive release due to the meltdown of the graphite-moderated Chernobyl reactor in 1986 that entrenched German anti-nuclear sentiment. Unlike other affected nations, in which hostility to nuclear gave way to pragmatic assessments in the years following, the German reaction was both irrational and sustained. Indeed, even following the release of the 25-year anniversary comprehensive UNSCEAR report in 2011, showing that the radiation impacts turned out to be much less than originally feared , the German reaction continued to be one of deep scepticism. Similarly, although the World Health Organisation concluded that the public health impacts from radiation from Fukushima were likely to be minimal , it nonetheless validated German scepticism of the inherent risks of nuclear – subsequent reports revealed the Japanese institutionalised culture of regulatory capture known as amakudari, literally “descent from heaven”, where senior regulators and bureaucrats retire into the powerful executive posts that they once regulated . The consequence of the “nuclear village” was that risks were inadequately borne by operators and the sort of routine safety features found in the US, for example, had not been implemented .
Although there is ambivalence towards nuclear throughout Europe, the intriguing question is – what is distinctive about Germany, as opposed to say France, that derives 75% of its electricity from 58 nuclear power plants? French policy makers understood the trade-offs of energy policy, and lacking the indigenous coal of Germany, led a strong institutional support that underpinned public support. A popular French response to the question of why they have so much nuclear energy is “no oil, no gas, no coal, no choice.” France has a tradition of large, government managed projects which are popular in the same way as high speed trains . Unlike the US model of decentralized projects, the French model was to standardize a single US reactor, which brought the benefits of cost, along with standardized training and safety.
But perhaps the defining answer is the legacy of the distinctive German response to the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, which produced a peculiar synthesis of naturalism and nationalism . Britain was immunised against the harsher elements of the industrial revolution by the “protestant work ethic”, the United States and Australia as pioneer nations, exploited the power of steam and coal for nation building, and France lacked a ready source of coal. But a distinctly German love of nature, rural life and forests drove a counter cultural response – the Romantic Movement was a revolt against the rational and structured world of the Industrial Revolution . These ideals were embodied in the völkisch movement, which has no simple English translation, but loosely incorporates ideas of romantic nationalism and homeland .
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger  provides an entry point for drawing out some of the ideals in late nineteenth and early twentieth century proto-environmental German thinking. Heidegger provided a critique of enlightenment thinking and the scientific revolution. He claimed that science had encouraged the framing of the natural landscape as “stuff” and a “standing reserve” for humans. The problem for Heidegger was a lack of respect for nature – his main concern was not pollution, degradation, or limits to growth as modern neo-Malthusians would argue, but the reductionist relationship between humans and their world. These deeply held ecological views were similarly reflected in Ernst Moritz Arndt and his student Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, who both railed against the industrial exploitation of woodlands and soil . In the 1850s, Riehl perhaps anticipated modern environmentalism when he argued for “the rights of wilderness”. Both Arndt and Riehl represented a particularly nineteenth century German fusion of naturalism and nationalism, and hostility to urbanism. Klaus Bergmann used the term Großstadtfeindschaft, which roughly translates as “hostility to the city” or “anti-urbanism”, reflecting hostility to the cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and cultural tolerance of cities.
Australians would be more likely to have heard of Rudolf Steiner and his renowned “Steiner education”. Steiner blended racist ideology with his unique spiritualist anthroposophy movement, and developed an early form of holistic “vitalist” organic agriculture called biodynamics . Biodynamics treats soil fertility and plant growth as ecologically interrelated tasks – indeed, the term “ecology” was originally defined by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel. Even today, nearly half of global biodynamic farming area is in Germany .
In Germany in the early part of the twentieth century there wasn’t a specific movement that carried the “environment” or “green” label as we define it today. Rather, organisations such as the Deutscher Bund Heimatschutz (Homeland Protection Association of Germany) embodied ideas of homeland protection and nature protection. These carried the ideals of protecting the German homeland and the landscape. Brüggemeier et al  explain that in the same way that we think of architectural styles reflecting the preferences of nation, Germany’s landscape bore the distinctly German imprint.
In the lead up to the 1930s and 40s, many of these ideals became incorporated into National Socialism, perhaps most controversially with Anna Bramwell’s  claim that the Nazi Party had a “Green wing”. Brüggemeier  and others are critical of the use of such polemics, which controversially imply a simple linear relationship between today’s greens and yesteryear’s Nazi environmentalists. Nonetheless, many scholars have discussed the apparent overlap between the goals of National Socialists and environmentalists in the first half of the twentieth century. The nature protection movement in Germany was more powerful and articulate than elsewhere in Europe, and the Nazi dictatorial power structures provided opportunities for implementing environmentalist agendas.
But it is also possible to identify in the Energiewende the expression of Heimat (homeland), the “feeling of belonging together” and the communitarian impulse . This is perhaps the most important lesson of community-driven political movements – the Energiewende is a stunningly successful community-driven bottom-up model with broad support across the political left/right spectrum. Germany is unique in having successfully mobilised the grassroots movement of the 1970s and 80s, and converted this support into tangible political outcomes.
At a philosophical level, we see the expression of solar and nuclear as polar opposites of the Romantic versus enlightenment spectrum – solar (and wind) as the return to a simpler way, in touch with nature, and a contemporary expression of the archetypal instinct of sun worship – nuclear representing the pinnacle of science, empiricism, and the harnessing of the unimaginable power of the atom with its attendant risks. These competing philosophies co-exist in all countries, but it is only in Germany that this polarity has so starkly fallen at the Romantic end of the spectrum. But the stunning success of solar is also that it both encapsulates the ideals of a simpler way, and draws in the modern “bright green” environmentalist persona who melds the idea of solar with the techno-optimism of the information technology and silicon revolution.
Given the strong contemporary alignment in Australia between the political left and environmental values, the German experience can seem unusual. Yet in recent history in the anglophile countries, conservation values were more often associated with traditional conservative political values, while the leftist tradition was preaching a gospel of abundance and the reduction of poverty through economic growth . For example, it was the Republican President, Richard Nixon, who oversaw a range of environmental initiatives that remain the bedrock of American environmental protection. In Australia, the 1960s and 70s was a period when the conservative side of politics frequently took the environmental initiative . In Victoria, the landmark Environmental Protection Act was legislated in 1970 during Liberal Premier Henry Bolte’s rule, and it was Greg Hunt’s father Alan, who served under Bolte, Hamer and Thompson, who drove the Green Wedges urban strategy in suburban Melbourne . For most of the twentieth century, it was often the shooters and recreational fishermen who most strongly supported the protection of forests and rivers. Even the Australian Conservation Foundation was established with the conservative Sir Garfield Barwick serving as president.
It is possible to identify two distinct periods when traditional conservation values and modern environmentalism split. The first was a response to Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian book, The Population Bomb. As Sabin  noted, much of the antagonism from the political right stemmed from the cataclysmic future of population campaigners such as Ehrlich, which reached an apotheosis under the Reagan administration. The second was the response to Kyoto in 1997, which galvanised energy companies to rally against a global response to climate change .
In Australia, it was the frustration of the environmental left against the climate scepticism of the Howard Government and the “greenhouse mafia” [23, 24] from the late 1990s through the 2000s that drove the plethora of fragmented and ultimately ineffective greenhouse policies. The Grattan Institute  identified around 300 greenhouse policies, with only a handful of market-based instruments delivering a worthwhile outcome.
Arguable, the single most significant failure of Australian climate policy remains the Howard Government’s rejections of Robert Hill’s proposals for a modest carbon price post-Kyoto. In a cruel irony, a modest, revenue neutral carbon price that reflected both the uncertainties of climate change, and global commitments, would have been a far more efficient and flexible instrument, and better aligned with Liberal Party principles. At minimum, it would have provided a firm base to build a coherent climate policy while avoiding the costly and disjointed policies we have seen to date.
Yet, the Renewable Energy Target, implemented by the Howard Government, became a model scheme for renewables support, although the original intent of the policy was to spur local development, industry and innovation at a modest cost rather than providing a large-scale subsidy for imported wind power . The difficulty is that, once enacted, it created a whole industry of corporations, consultants and lobby groups who relied on the RET since the self-supporting industry development simply didn’t occur. We also see this in Germany, which has created career pathways dependent on ongoing institutional support for renewables. The bind is that Australian climate policy can only have long-term credibility if it is embraced by the Liberal/National Party, but nuclear can only be successful introduced as one of the main pillars of low-carbon energy if it is adopted by the Labor Party.
The long-run consequence of this failure of broad-based policy was to lead to desperate attempts to draw Australia into mainstream climate action. Since the economically dry-right had abrogated its role, the resulting policy vacuum became dominated by narratives by the environmental-Green-left. And this meant turning to the Mecca of climate policy: Germany.
It is interesting the way in which the language of German environmentalism has become incorporated into an Australian environmentalist narrative. The quintessential example is the importation of the FiT solar model and the associated concept of “democratised energy”. Although the first form of feed-in tariffs were implemented in the US under the Carter Administration in the 1970s, it was the German model that became the template for small-scale support mechanisms from the 1990s. This became aligned with the concept of democratised energy, which was imported into Australia via green groups and solar advocates.
What makes the democracy idea interesting in an Australian context is that there is little precedent for the concept in relation to utilities and public services – indeed, Australians generally express a preference for socialised public services (such as Medicare) and the long-run trend for households and businesses is to outsource services rather than bringing them “democratically” in-house (consider lawn mowing, car maintenance, home deliveries, healthcare). It is easier for a household to go “off-grid” for their water supply, for example, yet nobody discusses “the suburban democratisation of water”. Even if a justifiable financial case could be made for off-grid power, there is little evidence to suggest that most people, apart from enthusiasts, would be prepared to take on the responsibility of battery maintenance and regular replacement, backup generator service, and system maintenance.
In contrast, the democratisation of personal transport – motor cars – is strongly critiqued by green groups in favour of the socialised model of urban transport – trains and public transport. So we can see that the “democratised” model is really an opportunistic use of language – democracy is adopted as a universal virtue and associated with a value-laden cause, rather than representing a coherent argument. Yet the unfashionable language of “socialised” models, or “socialised” tariffs is carefully avoided. Interestingly, the countries in which nuclear has been most successful and accepted are the nations with the strongest state involvement in electricity – France, Sweden, Japan, Russia, and China.
This use of loaded language is prevalent in renewable revolution discussions. For example, “intermittent” is frequently replaced with “variable” or VRE (variable renewable energy) since “variable” carries connotations of user adjustment, volume, or control. We could perhaps use the more accurate term “uncontrollable variable” in place of intermittent, but of course this improved linguistic accuracy would be counterproductive to those seeking to promote intermittent power.
Another home-grown example is the so-called “base load myth” and the idea that “intermittency can also be baseload”. This was first promulgated in Australia by Mark Diesendorf , but picked up by the environmental community. This demonstrates a corruption of well-established technical jargon, with the purpose of confusing rather than clarifying. Yet even here, the corruption of language is highly context specific – baseload in the context of coal and nuclear is framed as unnecessary, inefficient and wasteful, yet becomes virtuous when applied to concentrated solar thermal power or hot-rock geothermal.
Here we see the coal/nuclear baseload model being renounced in favour of “distributed generation”, yet the baseload model of energy supply has been a remarkably resilient and effective model for providing the community with reliable and affordable energy. This is not an argument against exploring alternative models or improving the existing one. Indeed recent concerns related to rising costs and the decline in load factor due to air conditioning deserve greater attention. Nonetheless, the centralised model is remarkably efficient with distribution losses between power station and consumer averaging 6% , but the losses associated with solar PV systems between solar panel and inverter output related to resistive losses, inverter conversion, dust, and temperature degradation amount to typically 18% . So it is obvious that the narrative of “inefficient” centralised baseload versus the virtues of “distributed generation” is really more about branding than a meaningful statement of substance.
Perversely, the democratisation of the grid is also sometimes framed around the language of social justice, yet this is an inversion of logic – a large-scale exodus from the grid would lead to the dilemma of a smaller revenue base to recover the high fixed cost of networks, leaving low income households, renters, pensioners, schools, hospitals, and others carrying a higher cost burden. In Germany, Spain and the UK, the concept of fuel poverty has already become a serious social problem. Furthermore, an off-grid PV system has a lifetime net-energy return of little better than unity, implying that a large-scale community shift to off-grid would be economically and environmentally disastrous. So the themes of democratisation, social justice, and distributed energy have been imported from Germany and adopted by the Green-left for their universal virtues, yet they lead to what Frank Furedi calls “shallow opinions held strongly”.
But despite these issues, there remains a misplaced triumphalism about the Energiewende. Indeed, the focus on growth numbers tends to validate pre-existing beliefs, rather than serving as a basis for rigorous analysis. A new record for instantaneous penetration of wind and solar in Germany was recently proclaimed  – on May 11 2014, at about 1 pm, the penetration of wind and solar reached 67%. Yet the consequence of this is to demonstrate that Germany is already close to bumping against hard integration limits – the next stage of integration will require large-scale and expensive storage, or energy dumping.
The annual contribution of wind and solar is around 8% and 6% respectively, despite instantaneous penetration at some six times these levels. During summer, around 40% of PV is already exported . But this export strategy couldn’t work on a Europe-wide basis because all countries would be seeking to export at the same time – the Continental European synchronous grid spans only around 17° of longitude, essentially aligning the daily solar peak for every country within a little over an hour . Large, slow moving European low pressure systems produce a similar highly correlated wind pattern across the synchronous grid. These are not arguments against including intermittent plant within a broad low-carbon strategy – indeed there are contexts in which intermittent plant can provide a useful fuel savings role  – but highlight the fundamental constraints on relying on sources of power with a capacity factor of around 18% and 10% respectively, figures which are largely immune to technology.
The triumphalism of the Energiewende is really a classic case of targeting the wrong metric – measuring the installed renewable capacity or annual energy generated says little about the net impact on greenhouse emissions, energy security, continued reliance on imported natural gas, coal’s remarkable longevity, standard of living, or social equity. We might as well define the success of a football club by the number of uncontested possessions in the first quarter. Indeed, despite strong political, social and economic support for wind and solar since the 1990s, greenhouse intensity for German electricity remains stubbornly high at 10 to 20 times the best performing European nations , and none of the defining metrics have improved considerably . It is difficult to draw conclusions as to the macroeconomic impact of the Energiewende on Germany so far, but as the reluctant hegemon of Europe, Germany has so far demonstrated sufficient reserves to avoid the economic hardship experienced by countries such as Spain’s PV program.
A great anecdote from Farson and Keyes’ book The Innovation Paradox  perhaps captures Germany’s Energiewende dilemma – when a junior executive lost $10 million on a risky venture during IBM’s early start-up years, IBM CEO, Tom Watson Jr. rejected his offer of resignation, stating “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you!”
Perhaps the success of the Energiewende will not be whether or not is meets it stated targets but whether it provides a real-world case study of the limits of energy density and intermittency, when a wealthy, technologically advanced and absolutely committed nation throws everything at the challenge. The recent signs from Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel seem to point to a dawning realisation that reality might be catching up .
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