Minnesota meets the Energiewende

solar thermal installation on Hamburg's Energie Bunker

I recently spent a week in Berlin participating in the Berlin Seminar on Energy Policy.

This was the third seminar and my second time participating in the exchanges, which are organized by the University of Minnesota Center for German and European Studies. CGES director Sabine Engel and Minnesota lieutenant governor Yvonne Prettner Solon are the hosts of the seminar.

The German Energiewende (energy transition) is at the center of our discussions with German policy makers and energy innovators. It has very ambitious goals:

  • provide 60 percent of total energy consumption with renewables by 2050
  • provide 80 percent of electrical generation from renewables by 2050
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80-95 percent (from 1990 baseline) by 2050
  • phase out all nuclear sources by 2022

The German Renewable Energy Act (EEG), enacted in 2000, established a feed-in tariff, which accelerated the installation of distributed renewable energy technologies. The EEG requires that local grids connect to all renewable installations and guarantees a rate for energy that local producers provide to the grid.

Lewis Gilbert and Minnesota lieutenant governor Yvonne Prettner SolonOver the course of the seminar we had the opportunity to hear a wide range of views about the progress and challenges of the Energiewende. These talks and conversations illuminated the complexity of such an ambitious undertaking and, most strikingly, the unity of the German public regarding the long-term goals. Among the highlights I have taken away:

  • German energy solutions cross sectoral boundaries. German goals focus on energy and not the form of its delivery. If excess renewable generation can be buffered by creating fuels for the transportation sector, so much the better.
  • Modern grids are vital to the Energiewende. A central challenge to German success is the ability to move energy from production sites to areas of demand through networks of electrical and gas grids. There are still large challenges on this front, but those challenges are clearly articulated and on the agenda.
  • The Germans are very good at “muddling through.” On my first visit in July 2012 we heard a lot about the challenges of large excess production due to the large solar installed base. Barely one year later, we heard about developing deals with Norway for pumped storage and about a number of hot-water storage projects. Neither is optimal, but they are steps forward and are emblematic of the determination of the political and private sectors.
  • Politics are very important especially when the going gets tough. The EEG has had some very challenging unintended consequences, not all of which could have been anticipated. The rapid expansion of the distributed infrastructure and related interactions with the financial sector seem to ensure that the EEG will continue, but it will likely also be strongly overhauled.

The CGES is supported by a grant from the DAAD (an office of the German Foreign Office), with matching funds from units around the University, including IonE.

Lewis E. Gilbert is managing director and COO of the Institute on the Environment. Photos of solar thermal installation on Hamburg’s Energie Bunker and of Lewis Gilbert and Yvonne Prettner Solon (2012) courtesy of Lewis Gilbert.