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What Canada Can Learn From Germany’s Renewable Revolution

Changing from an energy system powered by fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy takes long-term planning, innovation and a buy-in from citizens, industry and all levels of government, says deep decarbonization expert Manfred Fischedick, an advisor to the German government during its transition from a country reliant on coal and nuclear energy to the global poster child for renewable energy.

Germany is aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. Strategies call for a 50 per cent reduction in energy consumption and a minimum of 80 per cent of the country’s energy to be generated by renewables by 2050.

Yes, it can be done, yes, there are skeptics, yes, it takes hard work and yes it is worth it, were the messages Fischedick brought to B.C. this week.

Fischedick, vice-president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, met with provincial politicians and spoke at the University of Victoria on strategies for shifting to a renewable energy future.

“I am very much looking forward to the experience exchange.To convey some of the learnings of Germany, but of course to take with me some of the learning from Canada,” Fischedick told DeSmog Canada.

We asked Fischedick what Canada can learn from Germany, how his country faced the biggest challenges in its transition and what the energy expert makes of Canada’s oil pipeline debate.

So what lessons can Canada learn from Germany’s transition to clean energy?

The most important aspect is to have a long term strategy and, for Germany, that  came in 2011 after the Fukishima accident happened. The strategy for 2050 sets very concrete milestones focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Specific targets are set for both areas and sector specific targets have  been set so that companies and individuals have an orientation mark.

Secondly, build up a sophisticated and sufficient monitoring system. Strategy is always good, but implementing the strategy is even better. You need to see what is working well and where there is room for improvement so each year there is a monitoring report from the government, which is important for building confidence among the public. Then there is an independent scientific commission that gives additional recommendations to government, so the whole thing is very transparent.

The third point is sector specific targets. We established these targets in 2016 and now each sector knows about what efforts are necessary in the next decades to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The fourth point is to organize a top-down, bottom-up process. We need to provide the necessary framework at the federal level and then to initiate and set a path in the regions and cities and companies to organize an implementation culture, to empower cities to address greenhouse gas emissions or to empower companies to do it. That’s very important to have broad support.

Another thing that’s important is the electricity sector. We started 15 years ago with five per cent renewables in the system, mainly based on hydropower, and, last year, for the first time, more than one-third of the electricity system was based on renewables, so it’s a very dynamic increase and it was possible to guarantee and even improve grid stability. That’s a very important message that it is possible to increase renewables within a very short time-frame without jeopardising system stability. If you go back 10 years in Germany the discussion was whether it would be possible to have more than 10 or 12 per cent of renewables in the system without jeopardizing stability and without the risk of the collapse of the system.

How did Germany convince the man-in-the-street, the general public that this was necessary?

The starting point in Germany was that people in general would say they were highly concerned about the environment and there were complaints about nuclear power plants and the risks associated with nuclear power plants, so we have a long term tradition of thinking about alternative energy systems.

Secondly, right from the beginning, you have to draw on citizen engagement and participation. For example, the biggest state developed a climate protection plan and then asked questions on the future energy system and how to achieve the ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets by 2050. They did it in a way that they invited more than 400 different stakeholders — from energy utilities, from industries, from labour unions, from non-governmental organizations, from associations to be part of the process. So it really was a participatory process. It was a very transparent and open-minded process with a lot of communication with the public. It allowed people to step into the discussion, to be part of planning the future energy system and to convince them it was the way to go. It motivated people.

We learned in the last two decades that it is very important to motivate people to invest in renewables in the specific areas where they live so there is a sense of ownership and being an effective part of the transition to renewable energy. It is not someone from the outside investing in the windmill next to you or in the solar facility. We did a lot of motivation campaigns.

We also have many cities in Germany that are proactive with regards to mitigation and they very often do it in a way that involves citizens. They do workshops and look for proposals in a very open way.

You also emphasize energy efficiency and that everyone has a personal responsibility?

Yes, that’s true. We have to inform people of the need to go in that direction and, at the same time, it reduces their energy costs. We need to have a contact person at the local level and that’s done in many cities nowadays for climate management. They can give direct advice to people living in the area, which means much more than a motivation campaign at the federal level. You have to go into the local communities to speak directly to people. One city in the northern area, the energy heart of Germany, started a process where they did a campaign with local building owners to convince building owners to invest in retrofitting their buildings. It was extremely successful.

What were the biggest challenges. Are there parts of the transition that still worry you?

First of all there’s the technological challenge because in Germany we do have many solar and wind energy sources and we did well in the last couple of years to increase the share from five per cent to 33 per cent, but the next is the goal to double the renewables by 2030 — that is a major step forward because it requires infrastructure and it requires an extension of the transmission grid and requires a change in market structure, so a lot of things have to be done. Then the main challenge is to provide appropriate long-term storage. We really need technical plans of what is doable and it is a question of what is affordable.

Then the energy sectors like transport and industry have some limitations on the direct use of electricity. Immobility is not appropriate for trucks or planes. Transport is the most problematic sector, a hot topic, because in Germany as in many countries, we are not able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in that sector for the last 25 years. Following our pathway to reduce emissions by at least 80 per cent by the middle of the century, we need a total shift in that sector and very soon. We need public acceptance and public support for the social challenges. We are changing a significant part of the economic structure of the country and it’s a long-term process over a couple of decades. It can be hard to motivate people to counteract the NIMBY effect. It requires a lot of effort.

What is your opinion of the controversy and polarized debate over the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion?

If countries invest a lot of money in traditional infrastructure like oil and gas infrastructure there is a danger because traditional energy systems are changing on a global scale and, if you really take into consideration the Paris agreement, then it becomes quite clear that there is no long-term future for oil and coal for instance. So you have to take into consideration that investments made now, may not be successful for a longer time period and there might be a risk of stranded investments.

The other message I would like to convey is to think about new energy potentials and think about whether it can be done any faster than many experts expected a couple of years ago. We are now in a situation where wind energy has become very, very competitive in many countries. I know in Canada you have very low energy prices, but nevertheless there is still room for cost reductions through the solar and wind sectors.

(Edited for length and clarity)

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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