NYT: “Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.”
“They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south.
It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources.
….Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset. A reckoning is at hand, and nowhere is that clearer than in Germany.
….Some American states, impatient with legislative gridlock in Washington, have set aggressive goals of their own, aiming for 20 or 30 percent renewable energy as soon as 2020.
….The German government has acknowledged the need for new rules, though it has yet to figure out what they should be. A handful of American states are beginning a similar reconsideration of how their electric systems operate.
….“I am convinced that wind and sun will be the central sources of energy, not only in Germany but worldwide,” said Patrick Graichen, who heads a think tank in Berlin, Agora Energiewende, devoted to studying the shift. “The question is: How can we turn the energy transition into a success story?”
….At about 100 Lennar subdivisions in California, buyers who move into a new home automatically get solar panels on the roof. Lennar, the nation’s second-largest homebuilder, recently decided to expand that policy to several more states, starting with Colorado. The company typically retains ownership of the panels and signs 20-year deals to sell homeowners the power from their own roofs, at a 20 percent discount from the local utility’s prices.
….Germany has spent more than $140 billion on its program, dangling guaranteed returns for farmers, homeowners, businesses and local cooperatives willing to install solar panels, wind turbines, biogas plants and other sources of renewable energy. The plan is paid for through surcharges on electricity bills that cost the typical German family roughly $280 a year, though some of that has been offset as renewables have pushed down wholesale electricity prices.
The program has expanded the renewables market and created huge economies of scale, with worldwide sales of solar panels doubling about every 21 months over the past decade, and prices falling roughly 20 percent with each doubling.
….Wind power, too, has come down sharply in price in recent years, and it is now competitive with the cost of new coal-burning power plants in parts of the United States.
The decline in the cost of renewable power spells potential trouble for companies that generate electricity. They make a lot of their money at times of day when demand for power, and therefore power prices, are high. Solar power, even a small amount, could be especially disruptive, shaving wholesale prices during those peak periods.
Though growing rapidly, solar power still accounts for less than 1 percent of American power generation, so the disruption has not yet been seen on a large scale in the United States. But some utilities, fearful of losing out as the power mix changes, have started attacking rules that encourage solar panels. Others are taking the opposite tack, jumping into the solar market themselves.
Nipping at the heels of those utilities are fast-growing start-up companies that are putting tens of thousands of panels on rooftops and leasing them to homeowners for no money down, with Wall Street banks providing the financing. The hot spot is California, which is aiming for 33 percent renewable power by 2020 and seems increasingly likely to get there.
In Germany, where solar panels supply 7 percent of power and wind turbines about 10 percent, wholesale power prices have crashed during what were once the most profitable times of day. “We were late entering into the renewables market — possibly too late,” Peter Terium, chief executive of the giant utility RWE, admitted this spring as he announced a $3.8 billion annual loss.
….The big German utilities are warning — or pleading, perhaps — that the revolution cannot be allowed to go forward without them. And outside experts say they may have a point.
In fact, the problems with the energiewende (pronounced in-ur-GEE-vend-uh) have multiplied so rapidly in the past couple of years that the government is now trying to slow down the transition. “I think we need a little bit of time,” said Jochen Flasbarth, a deputy minister of the environment.
But the German public is not taking that well. Marching down a Berlin street with thousands of other protesters one recent day, Reinhard Christiansen, the head of a small company focused on renewable energy in the town of Ellhöft, said, “We are afraid they are trying to put the brakes on the energy transformation.”
….Techniques to manage demand have been in limited use for decades, but new technologies are enabling a far more ambitious approach. Apple and Google, for instance, are investing billions in businesses designed to capitalize on the new opportunities, such as by helping homeowners manage their power use with devices like digital thermostats.
….For now, the German offshore farms are adding billions to the costs consumers are already bearing for solar panels, onshore wind turbines, biogas plants and the rest of the transition to renewable energy. Polls suggest it is a burden they are willing to carry.
“Indeed, the German people are paying significant money,” said Markus Steigenberger, an analyst at Agora, the think tank. “But in Germany, we can afford this — we are a rich country. It’s a gift to the world.”