How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP

A newly constructed home in Germany, with solar panels.

I’m attending the Institute on the Environment’s E3 (Energy, Economy and Environment) conference today at the University of Minnesota (disclosure: as a freelancer I’ve written for the institute’s magazine).

This morning we heard from the German Embassy’s energy and environment counselor, Friedo Sielemann, who talked about how his country became one of the world’s clean-energy success stories.

Germany has reduced greenhouse emissions 24 percent compared to 1990 levels and it now generates more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewables. And it’s achieved that without disrupting its economy, Sieleman said.

“We often hear that if you do this or that for the environment, your economy will suffer,” Sieleman said. Germany, however, has grown its GDP even as energy use and emissions have decreased. “These three are not automatically connected.”

How did it do it? The key was effective policies, particularly its system of feed-in tariffs, Sieleman said.

“It’s a very simple and very effective law,” he said. Basically, it says if you generate renewable energy, grid operators have to buy it at a fixed price and give it priority on the grid. The price is fixed for 20 years and decreases over time.

That fixed price gives investors security and predictability. The premium grid operators pay for renewables is ultimately passed onto electricity customers. The model doesn’t involve state subsidies.

The goal isn’t to give “eternal support” for renewables, Sieleman said, but rather to help new technologies compete.

More than one-third of Germany’s renewable energy comes from wind. Hydropower accounts for about 20 percent, and solar is over 10 percent. The rest comes from biomass.

There’s nothing particularly unique about the amount of wind or sun in Germany, but it has one resource that isn’t so plentiful here in the United States: consensus.

Germany has broad support for its climate change and renewable policies — “as broad as it can be in a democracy,” Sieleman said. That consensus “helps enormously.”

Photo by Tim Fuller via Creative Commons

One thought on “How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP

  1. I agree that the feed-in tariffs have really increased the rate of adoption of solar power systems among individual citizens here in Germany. However, the trend now is away from decentralized solutions and toward subsidies for larger companies that provide wind power, for example. These solutions are necessary as well, but require the construction of power lines and other infrastructure that local community solutions do not. In addition, the related economic stimulus now ends up with large companies rather than in local communities. Too bad.