How Germany's energy transition extends beyond its borders

A solar park in Germany. Photo by: Mark Mühlhaus / Windwärts Energie GmbH / CC BY-NC-ND

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 3 of a Devex series that examines Germany as an emerging power in global development. Read part 1: Germany, an emerging power in global development, remains a reluctant leader here and part 2: German foreign aid is at a record high and rising. Here is how it works

BERLIN, Germany — Leaders from around the world will gather for the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue next month. Speakers representing governments ranging from El Salvador to the United Arab Emirates to China will discuss the transformation of their energy sectors. But it is the host country, Germany, that is most likely to be the main inspiration when it comes to how to power a clean energy future.

“If it succeeds, it could be a great case study for the world,” Sven Egenter, executive director of Clean Energy Wire, told a group of journalists, including Devex, who traveled to Germany last month to report on the German energy policy known as the Energiewende. “And if it fails, it could be a great case study for the world.”

The Energiewende, German for energy turn, is the name of an ambitious effort by Germany to transform its energy sector and transition to a low- or no-carbon economy. The country aims to bring down greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020, and up to 95 percent by 2050, as compared to rates in 1990. By phasing out nuclear power and fossil fuels and developing renewable energy sources, Germany is undergoing its largest transformation since the reconstruction effort following World War II.

While Germany is often a reluctant leader globally, it is also a pioneer in this sector and is hoping to use the Berlin conference to move “towards a global Energiewende.”

Atomkraft? Nein Danke.

Germany, an emerging power in global development, remains a reluctant leader

Between the Trump presidency, the Brexit vote that preceded it, and the continued rise of nationalism and populism across Europe and beyond, members of the international community are looking for a leader they can count on to carry the torch on shared global challenges. Could it be Germany?

Katharina Umpfenbach, a senior fellow of the Ecologic Institute environmental think tank in Berlin, projected a picture of the atomic bomb up on the wall.

“Why did it scare Germans so much?” she asked of the bombs the United States dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. “The reason was probably it was built for the Germans.”

Those who say the Energiewende is a reaction to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011 are mistaken, she said, describing an anti-nuclear movement that goes back many decades in Germany.

Following World War II, there was a boom in the peaceful use of nuclear facilities for power production, but the German population always made the link between the wartime and peacetime use of nuclear power, she said. The 1970s saw an uprising against the use of nuclear power in Germany, with protesters holding signs that said “Atomkraft? Nein Danke” or “Nuclear Power? No Thank You.” Then the Chernobyl accident in 1986 made the movement more mainstream, ultimately leading the country to decide to phase out nuclear power.

There was a brief period of six months when German Chancellor Angela Merkel — whose first government leadership role was as environmental minister — reversed the phaseout, proposing nuclear as a bridge to a low-carbon economy. But following the Fukushima disaster, she announced the country would go back to the nuclear phaseout. Now, nuclear power is not an option in Germany, both when it comes to the domestic Energiewende and a growing number of efforts by Germany to promote similar clean energy transitions in other countries.

An inclusive transition

The view out the window on a train ride through the German countryside includes solar panels that span roofs and wind turbines that stretch across horizons.

One of the major barriers countries face in their clean energy transitions is “nimbyism,” or pushback from people who say “not in my backyard.” But since the Energiewende first took off in 2000, Germans have taken energy production into their own hands. For example, energy cooperatives that allow communities to sell electricity to the national grid are involving citizens in the energy transition, and serving as a model for others.

“What makes Germany’s transition so incredibly powerful is that people have skin in the game,” said Justin Guay, program officer for climate at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

But while there has been public support for this national campaign to achieve energy independence, grid extension has run into resistance. The U.S. presidential election served as a reminder that the Energiewende must happen in an inclusive way, said Annalena Baerbock, a member of parliament from the Green Party. The climate skeptic Alternative for Germany party makes it critical for German politicians to consider which citizens, such as coal workers, might feel that they will be left behind in this transition, she said.

Younicos is developing smart energy and grid solutions based on battery storage. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Sharing what has been learned

“Pioneers always must solve problems that can’t be foreseen,” said Timon Herzog, the chief operating officer at GRIPS Energy, a Berlin-based organization that offers sustainable energy via power purchase agreements in the developing world. “Other countries can benefit from the learnings and avoid the same mistakes.”

Germany is well on its way to reaching its goal of renewables covering 80 percent of power consumption by the middle of the century. But electricity requires supply and demand to match. Managing an energy system with a growing percentage of renewable energy requires improvements in grids and storage.

“The biggest challenge for us is how to integrate a bigger percentage of fluctuating renewable energies into the existing grid,” said Bernhard Zymla, head of the energy and transport section at the German Corporation for International Cooperation, or GIZ.

In Germany, Devex visited organizations such as Younicos, a technology company that develops and sells energy storage systems, which are working to develop solutions to those problems.

Another barrier to progress that came up in conversations throughout Berlin was the car companies, often referred to as “the big three:” Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz and BMW.

“We are a car country,” Baerbock said of the influence of these powerful lobbies against any aspects of the clean energy agenda that could affect their bottom line.

She also noted a contradiction between the work Germany is doing to promote renewable energy at home and its work to promote German industry in other markets. Conflicts between ministries focused on aid versus trade have led German voters to support incumbents that have lost business in Germany as a result of the Energiewende. She called it “a double standard.”

Working with partners

German foreign aid is at a record high and rising. Here is how it works.

Germany has a growing budget for development cooperation and increasing pressure to take a leading role on the world stage. Here's how it approaches its work in development cooperation.

When the Paris Climate Agreement led countries around the world to agree to cut their carbon emissions, Germany had already established itself as a leader in the change that would be needed, and it has since emerged as a critical partner for countries looking to pursue an Energiewende of their own.

Germany continues to increase its contributions to climate financing, with 90 percent of that funding coming from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, or BMZ, which is the primary funder of GIZ. Projects span issue areas, such as climate risk insurance, and they vary country by country, such as an initiative to fit 600 mosques across Morocco with solar energy systems. GIZ works in 130 countries around the world, and in each of them, there is a project focused on energy, with an emphasis on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The Energiewende gives Germany credibility to work with partners who are interested in transforming their energy sectors. But the key is that Germany does not come into other countries and tell them what to do, said Christiana Hageneder, who works for GIZ on energy efficiency in the Ukraine. Partners must be in the driver’s seat, hold the steering wheel, and drive toward their goals, she said.

As Germany draws on its own experience in projects such as the Energizing Development Partnership — a collaboration with 25 partner countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia — the country would be the first to admit that it can also learn from them.

Developing countries have the opportunity to start from scratch with more sustainable, less expensive, and decentralized models, said Herzog, who formerly worked with GIZ.

Decentralized renewable hybrid systems will allow developing countries to leapfrog the expensive and time-consuming grid expansion that can hold industrialized nations like Germany back, he said.

A global Energiewende

At COP21, GIZ supported the governments of 30 countries, from Vietnam to Morocco to Peru, to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At COP22, Morocco and Germany launched the NDC Partnership, a new coalition of developed and developing countries working together on national climate plans. And at COP23 in Nov. 2017, stakeholders from around the world will see the Energiewende up close when they gather at the U.N. Convention on Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn.

Germany has taken such a leading role that it risks having too high a profile in the energy sector, said Peter Adelmann, CEO of the Institute for Decentralized Electrification, Entrepreneurship and Education.

“Sometimes it helps, but sometimes it’s a burden,” he said of what it’s like to be a German in his consulting projects for GIZ and other organizations. “Our know how gives us an advantage, but there are too many Germans everywhere.”

The world is in the midst of a transition from seeing the renewable energy transition as a question of who will bear the most burden to a seeing it as a question of who will get the most out of it, Guay of the Packard Foundation said.

With concerns about the faltering future leadership of the U.S. on climate action, all eyes are on Germany, but China may be more likely to emerge as the de facto leader on climate change, motivated at least in part by the promise of a return on investment.

“It’s not that China is stepping up in some altruistic way to deliver on climate,” Guay said. “China sees there are market opportunities and wants to corner them.”

Germany is expanding its work on energy in Africa, and developing its Marshall Plan to define future relations with African countries, but it might have to get in line behind China.

From Brexit to the new U.S. administration to the worsening impacts of climate change, there are growing pressures on Germany to promote its clean energy agenda.

The Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue is just one example of the way Germany is taking this energy transition beyond its borders, experts told Devex. The G20 presidency provides the country with another platform for leadership, with the summit in Hamburg this July presenting another opportunity to move “towards a global Energiewende.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The reporter traveled to Germany with the support of the IJP. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.