Will Germany Lead the World’s Energy Revolution?

Germany’s energy plans lie between Scylla and Charybdis: fossil fuel-generated carbon dioxide emissions on the one hand and potentially catastrophic nuclear energy on the other. With strong motivation to avoid both, Germany has been left with only one alternative. The direction of energy policy in the U.S. – and the rest of the world – may rest on whether Germany succeeds in its ambitious plan to embrace renewable sources.

Germany’s giant investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, known as the Energiewende or energy transformation, will surely produce technological breakthroughs for which the rest of the world should be grateful. Whether it will be beneficial for Germany itself, however, is a question that remains unanswered.

In an article in The Guardian Germany’s motive is chalked up to efforts to escape its appalling history. Germany’s energy program, the article says, “goes back to the second world war and the postwar generation who challenged their parents afterwards for just standing by.” Germans I know, however, also chalk it up to German Romantik philosophy with a very special relationship to nature.

German Green Party politician Hermann Ott told The Guardian that the county’s history “led to a very strong environmental and anti-nuclear movement. … If something goes wrong, you have to speak up and do something otherwise your children will ask you in 20 to 30 years, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’”

In Germany, no one doubts climate change or that its causes are rooted in human activities. Germany has a strong scientific tradition and an unshakable respect for scientists. Germans regard climate change as a very serious concern. Perhaps to atone for their historic failures, they have embarked on a world-leading effort to do something about it.

At the same time, however, many Germans regard low-carbon-emission nuclear energy with equal concern. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster had a major effect on Germany, spreading nuclear radiation across Eastern Europe and causing panic about the possible impacts on food and health. The actual impacts were difficult to determine at the time. But even if they turned out, in retrospect, to be less than feared, the incident was a reminder of the terrifying power and potential consequences of nuclear energy. The March 2011 nuclear reactor accident at Fukushima reinstated and reinforced these concerns. After Fukushima, Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy entirely.

These twin concerns have led Germany to stake its future on renewable energy.

The moral equivalent of war

Germany has embarked on a program of massive subsidization for renewable energy. In the United States, we would think such a market-distorting program is doomed to failure and destruction. But we forget our own past. The United States’ rise in the latter half of the 20th century was foremost a product of a massively economy-distorting, government-led program to produce armaments for England and America to fight World War II. No private sector-led effort would have done this; no purely economic justification could have supported it. Yet its result in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century was the most rapid and sustained surge of industrial and technological development the world has ever known.

On April 18, 1977, after a sudden increase in the price of oil, President Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war.” If Germany believes that avoiding climate change and skirting the dangers of nuclear energy is the moral equivalent of war, could it lead a worldwide energy transformation this century?

Or, alternatively, will the economic distortions caused by Germany’s energy program cause it to lose the war?

It is too soon to tell. But Germany’s bold energy experiment is sure to have lasting effects. Unlike the solar panels that Jimmy Carter installed on the White House in 1979 and President Reagan removed seven years later, the rooftop solar panels that have spread like wildfire across Germany will continue to pump out electricity for many years.