In Germany, Everyone Can Be an Energy Producer

Date: 15 Nov 2012 | posted in: Energy, Media Coverage | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Inside Climate News, November 15, 2012

The Abbey of St. Peter in the Black Forest has had its ups and downs since its founding in 1090. It burned to the ground in 1238. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by fire in 1437, establishing a pattern that would be repeated for several centuries. In 1727, after it went up in flames yet again, citizens of this close-knit mountain village decided to try something different. They built a new church from blocks of fireproof sandstone, creating an imposing structure that still dominates their postcard-perfect village.

Today, the Abbey is known as one of Germany’s most exquisite Baroque buildings. What isn’t widely known is that it’s also a vivid example of Germany’s recent Energiewende and how the energy revolution was built from the bottom up.


In the United States, this model is called “distributed generation”—or “DG” for short—and it has attracted a small but growing base of advocates. John Farrell, a senior researcher with the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is one of the movement’s most prominent fans. He supports DG for a variety of reasons, including its efficiency (high) and cost (low). But the benefit that drives Farrell is what he calls the democratization of energy.

“With DG, anyone can be a power producer,” Farrell told me recently by phone. He compared DG to another technological advance, the development of the computer, which changed the world a generation ago. “We went from supercomputers in a basement somewhere to desktops and the Internet. The result is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.”

At heart, Farrell says, DG is a matter of equity—of individual, entrepreneurial freedom.

“There’s money to be made from generating electricity,” he said. “Everyone should have a chance to reap those economic benefits.”

That is what’s happening in St. Peter. Like the hot water that keeps its houses warm, the money that had once flowed to distant utilities now circulates throughout the village. Bohnert pointed to the middle-aged man in heavy gray overalls and muddy work boots who was dumping the wood chips. They came from trees he had thinned on his woodlot.

“That’s Konrad Schwär,” Bohnert said. “His dairy farm is just down the road. He gets heat from the pipeline and a fair price for the wood chips.”

Like many others in the area, Schwär also earns money from generating electricity through the solar panels on his roof and selling it to the grid. He’s assured of getting a premium price for the electricity, thanks to Germany’s Feed-in-Tariff, the renewable energy bonus payment that has made the Energiewende move so fast. Without the FiT, only the deepest green eco-warriors would probably go to the trouble and expense of installing solar panels on their roofs. With the bonus, even the most buttoned-down, tofu-hating conservatives have joined the renewable revolution. Political philosophy has remarkably little to do with support for the Energiewende.

“The reason Germany is so far ahead of us in renewable power is simple,” said DG-advocate John Farrell. “Their policies are designed so that people have skin in the game.”

Farmer Schwär also receives another important benefit: a vote on how the town’s generating plant is run. That’s because Bürger Energie is a cooperative, part of a nationwide movement started by small farmers in the 19th century. In its latest incarnation, the “crop” driving the cooperative movement is homegrown energy, produced primarily from biomass, photovoltaics and wind power. Participation in this type of co-op has grown dramatically in recent years. Eight energy co-ops were founded in 2006. By the end of 2011, another 431 energy co-ops had been added. Today, energy co-ops produce power for 83,000 German households.


That pragmatism has paid off handsomely. Solar panels cost the same in Germany as they do in the United States, but a German homeowner pays $10,000 to install a typical rooftop system while a U.S. homeowner pays $20,000 for the same system. The difference is entirely due to the German focus on reducing the cost of deployment. Permitting fees that can run into the thousands of dollars in the United States cost nothing, or close to it, in Germany. The rest of the German price advantage comes from making distributed generation an attractive investment for citizens and small businesses. So many people were suddenly buying solar that installers streamlined their operations and passed the savings on to customers.

The lesson for America is clear: Sometimes, being methodical is its own form of genius.

Read the full story here.