Some also see the Electricity Autobahn as a threat to community energy and democratization. A government-created FiT will pay for power from offshore wind at rates more than double that paid for onshore projects.
Faced with a shrinking market share and dwindling profits, the Big Four utilities are waking up from their fossil fuel-induced slumber. Last November, one of Germany’s largest utilities, E.ON, stunned energy watchers by announcing a shift toward clean energy and acknowledging that its old business model “can no longer properly address these new challenges” brought on by the Energiewende. “We are seeing the emergence of two distinct energy worlds,” says E.ON CEO Johannes Teyssen, echoing Staiss’ division of the “old world” and the “now.” Three decades after Schönau’s Stromrebellen, E.ON was choosing renewables.
Energy writer and analyst Craig Morris says many activists see the Big Four as interlopers trying to hijack a revolution they first ignored and then opposed. “The grass-roots movements see the corporations as saying, ‘Excuse me, but I’ll have that energy sector back,’ ” now that proponents have made the Energiewende work, he says.
That success is especially evident in Schönau, where Sladek’s EWS is now the primary power provider for 170,000 households in every German state. Customers anywhere in Germany can choose EWS as their utility and pay for power EWS purchases from green energy generators throughout the country. That model could be challenged, however, if the energy landscape is once again dominated by powerful utilities.
A U.S. Energiewende?
As the Energiewende has gained momentum, it has become a model for other countries; more than 50 have copied the FiT alone. But as energy expert John Farrell notes, neither the FiT nor any of the Energiewende’s other elements has been widely adopted in the U.S. Farrell, with the Minnesota-based Institute for
Local Self-Reliance, has spent years designing and promoting an Energiewende for the United States, earning him a reputation as the “guru of distributed generation” in the U.S.
A host of differences between Germany and the U.S. makes an energy revolution more challenging here, he says. With a population density one-sixth that of Germany, the U.S. grid must traverse tremendous distances to bring electricity to its people and industries. Most Americans can’t pick power suppliers based on their use of green energy, or anything else for that matter — with a handful of exceptions, utilities operate as legal monopolies. And while Germany is phasing out nuclear power, five new reactors are under construction in the U.S., adding to its existing fleet of 99 commercial reactors. Unlike Germany, the U.S. has vast deposits of fossil fuels owned by powerful corporations. Partly because of that drive to keep drawing greenhouse gas-producing fuels from the ground, the U.S. lags far behind Germany in the share of electricity generated from renewable sources.
That’s especially unfortunate, Farrell says, because the U.S. has everything it needs for an energy transformation, including a surfeit of untapped solar, wind and other renewable resources that far outstrip Germany’s. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that fully 80 percent of electricity could come from renewables by 2050.
The U.S. is ahead of Germany in another crucial area: developing low-cost, efficient energy storage. Researchers at Harvard, for example, are perfecting an organic flow battery that can store a full day’s production of electricity from solar or wind farms, a development that could play a key role in integrating variable electrical generating sources into the grid.