We’re all taught in life that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The sentiment has been applied to Germany’s renewable energy transition, or Energiewende, with critics questioning emission reduction reporting or arguing costs of new systems are too high. But even if the Energiewende isn’t quite as shiny as it first appears, there are still a few important lessons from Germany's energy transition that Canada can take to heart.
German clean energy policy expert Dr. David Jacobs paid Canada a visit this week t
o dispel a few myths about the Energiewende. While addressing potential downsides, Jacobs talked about the lessons North American countries can take from Germany’s push toward completely sustainable energy.
Jacobs, the founder and director of International Energy Transition Consulting, organized an event in Vancouver Thursday to discuss Germany’s energy policies, and invited MLAs, policymakers, developers and academics to ask questions. He also spoke at the annual Generate
conference, hosted by Clean Energy BC. Jacobs visited at the invitation of Clean Energy Canada
as part of their Low Carbon Leadership speaker series.
Jacobs focused his talk on the strength of the German economy and the contributions of the green energy sector in achieving the lowest unemployment rate since reunification in the early 1990s. He also addressed criticism that investment in a new clean energy regime is too costly and is only available to wealthy countries and individuals who can afford to buy and install solar panels, reaping the financial rewards of selling green energy back to the grid.
When it comes to the big picture, Jacobs said many of the costs associated with Germany's transition have been historical costs, such as the purchase of solar panels when the cost of that equipment was much higher than it is today. The steady drop in the cost of solar means other countries looking to get on board are in a better starting position than Germany ever was.
Localized and democratized energy production
“This is very important for countries or jurisdictions like B.C.," Jacobs told DeSmog Canada. "If you start investing in PV (photovoltaics) today, you’re starting from a whole different benchmark and you can benefit from the cost reduction from other countries.”
On an individual level, he said, it requires very little equity (real assets) to invest in small-scale solar energy production. And this is perhaps one of the most important insights Canada’s energy sector can take from the German approach to democratizing the energy supply chain.
Where once there were only four companies supplying energy to the German grid, there are now 1.2 million contributors, and Jacobs said that number is only growing. The result is a decentralized and localized system of energy production and supply.
Germany's next steps
While the size of Canada compared to Germany (indeed, to all of Europe) might at first look like an impediment to the kind of small-scale energy production fueling Germany’s energy transition, Jacobs believes it’s quite the opposite. With Canadians spread out across a vast country, the idea of a localized supply that doesn’t require transportation over long distances makes a lot of sense.
“There’s actually more incentive to go for a decentralized solution,” he said, adding that he is by no means wedded to the romance of the 'small solution.' And in spite of the difference between B.C. and Germany, there are a few key similarities that mean we could benefit significantly not only from the current stage of their transition, but also from their next steps.
While the German model is currently focused on decentralizing the energy supply and putting production in the hands of families and individuals to generate their own power, the next phase involves a few steps back toward centralization, at least among their European neighbours.
“We still have these ugly months of November, December, January,” Jacobs said. It would require huge amounts of storage to get all Germans through the relatively sunless days of winter, a fact with which Vancouverites can surely empathize. Moving toward a new kind of centralized energy system based on renewables means countries can effectively share sunshine and other renewable resources.
“If the sun is not shining in northern Germany, it might be shining in southern France.”
Political obstacles to Canada's energy transition
Jacobs also talked about another key difference between Germany and Canada: the political climate.
One of the greatest sticking points in North America, the question of environment versus economy
, is, according to the Germans, no question at all. At least, not anymore. They’ve seen renewable energy contribute to a strong economy, one that is arguably stronger than most those of its European compatriots.
“So there are no longer people arguing that if you protect the environment you lose jobs. It’s clear that if you protect the environment you’re probably creating jobs.”
It’s not that Germany never faced the same kind of opposition to clean energy growth, Jacobs said. The timeline is just a little further ahead.
“We had a very similar debate in Germany but just a few decades earlier. The discussion you see happening in North America happened already in Germany in 1980s and 90s.”
He added that all political parties in Germany, regardless of their differences, all support the energy transition.
“It’s just one side of how big this consensus really is in our society.”
Between 80 and 85 per cent of the German people are in favour of the energy transition, according to Jacons, and 92 per cent are in favour of supporting the development of renewable in one way or another.
“Even more than half of the German population is willing to pay more for its electricity when it comes from renewable energy sources,” he said.
While much of Germany’s push for renewables can be credited to the country's longer political history, Jacobs is taken aback when I mention the politicization of energy in Canada and former Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s infamous reference to environmentalists as “foreign-funded radicals.”
“It has never been that polarized in Germany," he said. "Not even in the 1960s.”