05 Nov 2014, 00:00
How the Energiewende is transforming Germany as we know it

The social impact of Germany's energy transition

Germany's energy revolution is having a far-reaching impact on everything from the landcsape to education, as farmers earn more from their "energy harvest" than traditional crops and citizens rethink lifestyle choices to go green.


Farmers become energy producers

The forces driving change

Just take a drive through Germany, say from the Baltic coast down to one of Germany’s southern states – Bavaria or Baden-Wuerttemberg. You cannot miss the transformation of German landscape from a decade ago: the north’s flat, windy hinterlands are dotted with gigantic turbines and sprawling wind parks, while in town after town across the country’s south, the rooftops of neatly kept farms and homes are covered with black solar panels. Few are the farming villages in Bavaria and Lower Saxony that don’t have at least one rotund, metal biogas plant alongside fields growing energy crops like grasses and maize.

These changes are just an inkling – the most obvious to the eye – of how the “Energiewende,” or energy transition, is transforming Germany. In fields as diverse as law and markets, media and education, Germany is in the throes of far-reaching, paradigmatic shifts propelled by the Energiewende. The project to turn the country into a low-carbon economy reaches deep into architecture, landscape design, tourism and urban planning.

The country now generates nearly a third of its electricity from renewable sources, namely photovoltaic solar, onshore wind, hydro and bio-energy, and aims to produce at least 80 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2050. This has meant the deployment of 1.4 million solar PV panels and 1.9 million solar thermal collectors, 7,85o biogas installations, and 24,193 onshore wind turbines. In addition to renewable energy production, Germany’s policies to meet targets on energy efficiency and greener heating and transportation contribute to the country’s on-going metamorphosis.

In his book The Third Industrial Revolution, US economist and advisor to the EU and Germany on energy issues, Jeremy Rifkin, argues that when a civilisation’s energy supply changes, everything in that society changes with it: the economy, architecture, agriculture, cities, employment, transportation, political power, and even human relationships.

“Energy regimes shape the nature of civilisations – how they are organised, how the fruits of commerce and trade are distributed, how political power is exercised, and how social relations are conducted,” he argues. The transformation of energy supplies have “profound implications for how we orchestrate the entirety of human life in the coming century.” Rifkin’s best-practice case study is Germany, which he cites as leading the way into the new era.

Take education: there are now 385 renewable energy-related programs at German universities and colleges, and 824 “solar (secondary) schools” that either operate solar panels or regularly address the topic of renewable energy in the classroom. Germany boasts 6,635 certified passive houses.” There is now even a tourist guide that catalogues 190 destinations for holidaymakers interested in renewable energy generation, and there is a nation-wide competition for Energiewende-related art.

The changes and their knock-on effects don’t please everybody: there are winners and losers when a society and economy undergo such sweeping reconstruction. Preservationists, for example, have rebelled against energy efficiency measures in old houses. Some architects and landscape architects gripe about the “ugliness” of wind turbines and solar panels, and environmentalists sometimes fight new wind parks in order to protect bird populations.

Farmers become energy producers

The farmers of Bavaria, one of Germany’s most conservative corners, where agriculture has underpinned the local economy for centuries, have adjusted well to the new opportunities. The state boasts the largest number of biogas plants (2,300) in Germany, almost all of which are run by farmers. Farms are also the location of many of Bavaria’s 465,000 PV panels with a technical capacity of 10,400 megawatts (MW) – roughly equivalent to ten nuclear reactors. And Bavaria has more energy cooperatives – 237 (2013) – than any other state. For these reasons and others, the Bavarian Farmers’ Association has made renewable energy generation one of its foremost priorities alongside traditional concerns. With its Climate Programme 2020 Bavaria is committed to doubling the share of renewable energy in its primary energy consumption to 20 per cent by 2020.

Josef Göppel, an MP for the Christian Social Union – the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – says the Energiewende has reinvented the way Bavarians farm. Twenty per cent of all arable land in his district is used for energy crops, overwhelmingly maize. Manure is now used as biomass, and then recycled as fertiliser. While most barns already have solar PV or thermal panels on their roofs, more farmers are investing in the latest generation of wind turbines – sophisticated technology that now works even in not-so-windy Bavaria.

Bavarian farmers used to rely on “milch pfennigs” from Brussels to compensate their meager earnings from the dairy business. “Today, our income from renewable energy is five times that of the EU agricultural subsidies my district gets,” explained Göppel, referring to Ansbach, his electoral district in western Franconian Bavaria and one of many traditional farming regions that now earn more from their “energy harvest” than from produce and livestock. In terms of solar PV, Ansbach led Bavaria with the production of 310,500 MWh of green electricity in 2012 – most of which it sold to the grid operator. Soon the region will be marketing its own electricity rather than selling it to grid operators.

The dynamic of a shifting energy supply can distort business as usual – in unexpected and sometimes adverse ways. Across Germany, for example, the increased planting of maize as a monoculture for use in biogas plants dangerously depletes the soil of nutrients. Such challenges demand the attention of academic institutions, as well as a new generation of school and college graduates equipped to tackle them, sparking far-reaching change in German education.

There are now 3,384 secondary schools participating in the National Climate Protection Initiative, a programme that promotes the Energiewende to school-age children, while universities and colleges offer 385 programmes (BA and MA) that address renewable energy. And these courses aren’t confined to engineering and science departments, the traditional home of the discipline of “energetics.”

While programmes like the Bachelor in Renewable Energy Management offered by the agriculture faculty at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences in Bavaria respond to the new landscape of decentralised energy production, the “enEEbler” research project of institutions, including the Alanus University of the Arts and Social Sciences in Bonn and the Nuertingen-Geislingen University for Economy and the Environment, looks at the “spillover effect” of citizens’ engagement in the renewable energy revolution on the businesses they work for. The project aims to find ways for companies to help their employees bring ideas for sustainable energy use into the workplace, and address the need for new production patterns and energy management.

The forces driving change

Experts note that there are different drivers of the transformation underway in Germany. There’s the upward push of a changing energy supply with more and more Germans becoming energy producers themselves, as well as the “top-down” pull of sustainability criteria, Energiewende-related legislation, as well as other German and EU laws. In terms of energy efficiency, EU guidelines have set the pace, while Germany’s feed-in tariffs paved the way for the expansion of renewables. The German Council for Sustainable Development, funded by the German government, is the force behind the greening of German business practices.

But Harald Welzer, professor of transformation design at the University of Flensburg and director of the foundation FuturZwei, argues that the fundamental transformative force is the push of the new energy supply. “The Energiewende is so significant because it’s a change of the mode of production, it’s not just green-washing,” he said. “The decentralisation of the energy supply, like the creation of the new small companies and co-ops, has changed the energy system in Germany. This is forcing economic models, policies and lifestyles to be rethought, too.”

Josef Göppel said his constituents’ positive, hands-on experience with the Energiewende has inspired them to rethink their needs and lifestyles, ranging from their choice of mobility and clothing, to how they organise their households and take vacations. “The Energiewende has served as a catalyst for transitioning to a sustainable lifestyle,” he said.

There are also sectors that have thus far evaded the push of the Energiewende and the pull of legislation. Germany’s automobile industry, for example, has moved very slowly. California alone has ten times as many hybrid and electric cars on the road than Germany.   

Günther Bachmann of the Sustainability Council believes that some of the biggest changes for Germany are yet to come. “There’s a lag between the technological status of the Energiewende and policy, cultural, and social changes. Technology and renewable energy production are changing faster than society does. For example, the time for small-grid decentralisation, smart-metering, and peak management is now, but Germans are still catching up with new business models and behaviour.”

“We’re on the brink of many changes being possible,” said Bachmann. “Our options are currently much greater than we realise.”


Paul Hockenos is a freelance contributor to the Clean Energy Wire. He has also written about energy issues for a wide range of international publications and is the author of the blog Going Renewable. He is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press).


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