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The Race for Alt Energy

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Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future

May 4th 2017

Green Mtn wind farm

Hamburg knew the bombs were coming, and so the prisoners of war and forced laborers had just half a year to build the giant flak bunker. By July 1943 it was finished. A windowless cube of reinforced concrete, with seven-foot-thick walls and an even thicker roof, it towered like a medieval castle above a park near the Elbe River. The guns protruding from its four turrets would sweep Allied bombers from the sky, the Nazis promised, while tens of thousands of citizens sheltered safely behind its impenetrable walls.

Coming in at night from the North Sea just weeks after the bunker was finished, British bombers steered for the spire of St. Nikolai in the center of the city. They dropped clouds of metallic foil strips to throw off German radar and flak gunners. Targeting crowded residential neighborhoods, the bombers ignited an unquenchable firestorm that destroyed half of Hamburg and killed more than 34,000 people. Towering walls of fire created winds so strong that people were blown into the flames. Church bells clanged furiously.

The spire of St. Nikolai, which somehow survived, stands today as a mahnmal—a memorial reminding Germany of the hell brought by the Nazis. The flak bunker is another mahnmal. But now it has a new meaning: An urban development agency (IBA Hamburg) and the municipal utility (Hamburg Energie) have transformed it from a powerful reminder of Germany’s shameful past into a hopeful vision for the future.

In the central space of the bunker, where people once cowered through the firestorm, a six-story, 528,000-gallon hot water tank delivers heat and hot water to some 800 homes in the neighborhood. The water is warmed by burning gas from sewage treatment, by waste heat from a nearby factory, and by solar panels that now cover the roof of the bunker, supported by struts angling from the old gun turrets. The bunker also converts sunlight into electricity; a scaffolding of photovoltaic (PV) panels on its south facade feeds enough juice into the grid to supply a thousand homes. On the north parapet, from which the flak gunners once watched flames rising from the city center, an outdoor café offers a view of the changed skyline. It’s dotted with 17 wind turbines now.

What makes Germany so important, however, is the question of whether it can lead the retreat from fossil fuels.

Germany is pioneering an epochal transformation it calls the energiewende—an energy revolution that scientists say all nations must one day complete if a climate disaster is to be averted. Among large industrial nations, Germany is a leader. Last year about 27 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, three times what it got a decade ago and more than twice what the United States gets today. The change accelerated after the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, which led Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare that Germany would shut all 17 of its own reactors by 2022. Nine have been switched off so far, and renewables have more than picked up the slack.

What makes Germany so important to the world, however, is the question of whether it can lead the retreat from fossil fuels. By later this century, scientists say, planet-warming carbon emissions must fall to virtually zero. Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, has promised some of the most aggressive emission cuts—by 2020, a 40 percent cut from 1990 levels, and by 2050, at least 80 percent.

The fate of those promises hangs in the balance right now. The German revolution has come from the grass roots: Individual citizens and energy genossenschaften—local citizens associations—have made half the investment in renewables. But conventional utilities, which didn’t see the revolution coming, are pressuring Merkel’s government to slow things down. The country still gets far more electricity from coal than from renewables. And the energiewende has an even longer way to go in the transportation and heating sectors, which together emit more carbon dioxide (CO₂) than power plants.

German politicians sometimes compare the energiewende to the Apollo moon landing. But that feat took less than a decade, and most Americans just watched it on TV. The energiewende will take much longer and will involve every single German—more than 1.5 million of them, nearly 2 percent of the population, are selling electricity to the grid right now. “It’s a project for a generation; it’s going to take till 2040 or 2050, and it’s hard,” said Gerd Rosenkranz, a former journalist at Der Spiegel who’s now an analyst at Agora Energiewende, a Berlin think tank. “It’s making electricity more expensive for individual consumers. And still, if you ask people in a poll, Do you want the energiewende? then 90 percent say yes.”

Why? I wondered as I traveled in Germany last spring. Why is the energy future happening here, in a country that was a bombed-out wasteland 70 years ago? And could it happen everywhere?

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

So in the late 1970s, when fossil fuel emissions were blamed for killing German forests with acid rain, the outrage was nationwide. The oil embargo of 1973 had already made Germans, who have very little oil and gas of their own, think about energy. The threat of waldsterben, or forest death, made them think harder.

Government and utilities were pushing nuclear power—but many Germans were pushing back. This was new for them. In the decades after World War II, with a ruined country to rebuild, there had been little appetite for questioning authority or the past. But by the 1970s, the rebuilding was complete, and a new generation was beginning to question the one that had started and lost the war. “There’s a certain rebelliousness that’s a result of the Second World War,” a 50-something man named Josef Pesch told me. “You don’t blindly accept authority.”

Pesch was sitting in a mountaintop restaurant in the Black Forest outside Freiburg. In a snowy clearing just uphill stood two 320-foot-tall wind turbines funded by 521 citizen investors recruited by Pesch—but we weren’t talking about the turbines yet. With an engineer named Dieter Seifried, we were talking about the nuclear reactor that never got built, near the village of Wyhl, 20 miles away on the Rhine River.

The state government had insisted that the reactor had to be built or the lights would go out in Freiburg. But beginning in 1975, local farmers and students occupied the site. In protests that lasted nearly a decade, they forced the government to abandon its plans. It was the first time a nuclear reactor had been stopped in Germany.

The lights didn’t go out, and Freiburg became a solar city. Its branch of the Fraunhofer Institute is a world leader in solar research. Its Solar Settlement, designed by local architect Rolf Disch, who’d been active in the Wyhl protests, includes 50 houses that all produce more energy than they consume. “Wyhl was the starting point,” Seifried said. In 1980 an institute that Seifried co-founded published a study called Energiewende—giving a name to a movement that hadn’t even been born yet.

All of them said Germany had to get off nuclear power and fossil fuels at the same time. “You can’t drive out the devil with Beelzebub,” explained Hans-Josef Fell, a prominent Green Party politician. “Both have to go.” At the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, energy researcher Volker Quaschning put it this way: “Nuclear power affects me personally. Climate change affects my kids. That’s the difference.”

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