How citizens drove Germany’s renewable energy expansion
With its wood-beamed cottages and narrow lanes, Neuerkirch seems like any picturesque hamlet in rural Germany. But the glinting roofs and white wind-turbines tell another story. The pride of the village, apart from its 700-year-old history, is a solar thermal system that provides heating to almost 200 homes, including those in the adjacent village of Kulz. The heating plant is fuelled by a small solar park and, in winter, wood cuttings. “This is the largest renewable heating network in the district,” says Mayor Volker Wichter.
Villages like Neuerkirch are part of a pioneering renewable energy movement that has transformed Germany in recent decades, taking share of renewables in electricity consumption from 6 per cent in 2000 to 37 per cent in 2017. The drivers of this energy transition, or ‘Energiewende’, have been ordinary citizens who seized on incentive policies introduced in the late 1990s to build renewable energy plants in their neighbourhoods. The result: Close to half the country’s solar and wind installations are owned by citizens—from individuals and small businesses to villages and citizen cooperatives.
The change was driven by environmental ideals, rooted in the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and later by climate concerns. But the idea of energy self-sufficiency—of replacing dependence on a few oil and gas giants with innumerable “prosumers”, consumers who produce their own clean energy locally—is also deeply attractive in this strongly federal state. As importantly, the makeover has brought economic benefits to local communities.
That’s evident in the wine-growing region of Rhein-Hunsrück-Kreis in western Germany, where Neuerkirch village is located. The district has been at the forefront of the renewable makeover. Solar panels cover 16 per cent of roofs from government buildings to homes. From one wind turbine in 1995, the area is now dotted with 268 turbines. Last year, the district produced three times its electricity requirements from wind, solar, and biomass installations – far ahead of national targets.
The switch has saved the district some 240 million euros in energy import bills, says Bertram Fleck, the district’s retired chief executive. “The money of the village should stay with the village,’’ he says, quoting nineteenth-century German mayor and cooperative pioneer Freidrich Raiffeisen. Fleck notes that when his father built his house in the 1960s, he would never have splurged on double-glazed windows. But heating costs have since exploded, making it sensible to invest in energy efficiency and local renewable power.
Renewables have also boosted the local economy, creating some 10,000 jobs in the state. One municipality, Mörsdorf, used income from leasing community land to wind turbines to build a tourist attraction: the country’s longest rope bridge. The bridge drew half a million visitors in the first two years, says Mayor Marcus Kirchhoff. Empty village homes were soon snapped up.
Such benefits helped boost support for renewable power in Germany, despite the consumer surcharges. Conservative parties are more convinced, said Thomas Griese, a Green Party state minister. “They have realized it makes economic sense to be independent of energy imports and also create jobs, so there is no contradiction anymore between economy and environment.”
Yet there has been pushback and not just from old fossil-fuel industries. Many Germans oppose the “asparagus-ification” of their small country, a reference to the 30,000 turbines that strew the countryside like the slender white asparagus so popular here. The resistance has spawned a new political party called “Free Horizon”. Critics say turbines are noisy, ruin tourist spots, and affect bats and birds. And the massive new power lines needed to transport the power have also run into protests.
Still, Germany says it is committed to renewables. The government is trying to plan a coal and nuclear phase-out, and recently raised its 2030 targets for sourcing power from renewables from 50 to 65 per cent.
In Rhein-Hunsrueck-Kreis, the transition continues. The district has a climate-change manager and a service that offers homes advice on energy-saving. There are free exchanges for old heating pumps and fridges and donations of LED lights to low-income homes. Some villages have even begun installing electric charging points for cars—transport is the next renewable challenge. “What we want,” said Mörsdorf’s Mayor Kirschhoff, “are villages fit for the future.”