A week at the American Academy in Berlin leaves me with two contradictory feelings: one is that Germany today deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, and the other is that Germany tomorrow will have to overcome its deeply ingrained post-World War II pacifism and become a more serious, activist global power. And I say both as a compliment.
On the first point, what the Germans have done in converting almost 30 percent of their electric grid to solar and wind energy from near zero in about 15 years has been a great contribution to the stability of our planet and its climate. The centerpiece of the German Energiewende, or energy transformation, was an extremely generous “feed-in tariff” that made it a no-brainer for Germans to install solar power (or wind) at home and receive a predictable high price for the energy generated off their own rooftops.
There is no denying that the early days of the feed-in tariff were expensive. The subsidies cost billions of euros, paid for through a surcharge on everyone’s electric bill. But the goal was not simply to buy more renewable energy: It was to create demand that would drive down the cost of solar and wind to make them mainstream, affordable options. And, in that, the energiewende has been an undiluted success. With price drops of more than 80 percent for solar, and 55 percent for wind, zero-carbon energy is now competitive with fossil fuels here.
“In my view the greatest success of the German energy transition was giving a boost to the Chinese solar panel industry,” said Ralf Fücks, the president of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the German Green Party’s political foundation. “We created the mass market, and that led to the increased productivity and dramatic decrease in cost.” And all this in a country whose northern tip is the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska!
This is a world-saving achievement. And, happily, as the price fell, the subsidies for new installations also dropped. The Germans who installed solar ended up making money, which is why the program remains popular, except in coal-producing regions. Today, more than 1.4 million German households and cooperatives are generating their own solar/wind electricity. “There are now a thousand energy cooperatives operated by private people,” said the energy economist Claudia Kemfert.Oliver Krischer, the vice chairman of the Green Party’s parliamentary group, told me: “I have a friend who comes home, and, if the sun is shining, he doesn’t even say hello to his wife. He first goes downstairs and looks at the meter to see what [electricity] he has produced himself. … The idea now is that energy is something you can [produce] on your own. It’s a new development.” And it has created so much pushback against the country’s four major coal/nuclear utilities that one of them, E.On, just split into two companies — one focusing on squeezing the last profits from coal, oil, gas and nuclear, while the other focuses on renewables. Germans jokingly call them “E.Off” and “E.On.”One problem: Germany still has tons of cheap, dirty lignite coal that is used as backup power for wind and solar, because cleaner natural gas is more expensive and nuclear is being phased out.So if that’s the story on renewable power, how about national power? Two generations after World War II, Germany’s reticence to project any power outside its borders is deeply ingrained in the political psyche here. That is a good thing, given Germany’s past. But it is not sustainable. There is an impressive weight to Germany today — derived from the quality of its governing institution, its rule of law, and the sheer power of its economy built on midsize businesses — that is unique in Europe.
When you talk to German officials about Greece, their main complaint is not about Greek fiscal policy, which is better lately, but about the rot and corruption in Greece’s governing institutions. The Greeks “couldn’t implement the structural reforms they needed, if they wanted to,” one German financial official said to me. Athens’ institutions are a mess.
With America less interested in Europe, Britain fading away both from the European Union and the last vestiges of it being a global military power, France and Italy economically hobbled and most NATO members shrinking their defense budgets, I don’t see how Germany avoids exercising more leadership. Its economic sanctions are already the most important counter to Russian aggression in Ukraine. And in the Mediterranean Sea, where Europe now faces a rising tide of refugees (and where Russia and China just announced that their navies will hold a joint exercise in mid-May), Germany will have to catalyze some kind of E.U. naval response. The relative weight of German power vis-à-vis the rest of Europe just keeps growing, but don’t say that out loud here. A German foreign policy official put their dilemma this way: “We have to get used to assuming more leadership and be aware of how reluctant others are to have Germany lead — so we have to do it through the E.U.”
Here’s my prediction: Germany will be Europe’s first green, solar-powered superpower. Can those attributes coexist in one country, you ask? They’re going to have to.