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German village of 145 set to lead renewable revolution

Canada’s making headway in its green energy efforts, but a tiny village in Germany is already showing bigger nations the future of electricity


December 29, 2011
by The Canadian Press

FELDHEIM, Germany—A tiny village of 37 grey homes and farm buildings along a main road in a wind-swept corner of rural eastern Germany seems an unlikely place for a revolution.

But environmentalists, experts and politicians from El Salvador to Japan to South Africa flocked here in 2011 to learn how Feldheim, a village of just 145 people, is putting Germany’s vision of a future powered entirely by renewable energy into practice.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government passed legislation in June setting the country on course to generate a third of its power through renewable sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy.

Within a decade, the country hopes to reach 80 per cent by 2050, while creating jobs, increasing energy security and reducing harmful emissions.

Germany’s goals are among the world’s most ambitious—and expensive. Other industrialized nations from the U.S. to Japan are watching to see whether transforming into a nation powered by renewable energy sources can really work.

“Germany can’t afford to fail, because the whole world is looking at the German model and asking, can Germany move us to new business models, new infrastructure?,” said Jeremy Rifkin, a U.S. economist who has advised the European Union and Merkel.

In June, the nation passed the 20 per cent mark for drawing electric power from a mix of wind, solar and other renewables. That compares with about 9 per cent in the United States or Japan—both of which rely heavily on hydroelectric power.

Expanding renewables depends on the right mix of resources, government subsidies and investment incentive, but also a willingness by taxpayers to shoulder their share of the burden.

Germans currently pay a 3.5 euro cent per kilowatt-hour tax, roughly $205 a year for a typical family of four, to support research and investment in and subsidize the production and consumption of energy from renewable sources.

That subsidy allows homeowners who install solar panels on their rooftops, or communities like Feldheim that build their own biogas plants, to be paid above-market prices for selling back to the grid, to ensure their investment at least breaks even.

Keys to the transformation will be getting the nation’s powerful industries on board, to drive innovation in technology and create jobs.

According to the Environment Ministry, overall investment in renewable energy production equipment more than doubled to $38.44 billion in 2011. Solid growth in the sector is projected through the next decade.

The renewable sector already employs 370,000 people in Germany, more than double the number in 2004, a point the government is using as proof that tax payers’ investment is paying off.

Feldheim has zero unemployment—despite its tiny size—compared with roughly 30 per cent in other villages in the economically depressed state of Brandenburg, which views investments in renewables as a ticket for a brighter future.

Most residents work in the plant that produces biogas or maintain the wind and solar parks that provide the village’s electricity.

But it’s not only in the country.

Earlier this month in Berlin, officials unveiled a prototype of a self-sustaining, energy-efficient home, built from recycled materials and complete with electric vehicles that can be charged in its garage.

The aim of the prototype home is to produce twice as much energy as is used by a family of four—chosen from a willing pool of volunteers who will be selected to live in the home for 15 months—through a combination of solar photovoltaics and energy management technology in order to show the technology already exists to allow people to be energy self-sufficient.

Germany’s four leading car makers are also participating in the project with BMW AG, Daimler AG, Volkswagen AG and Opel, which is part of Buick’s parent company, General Motors Co., each making an E-car for use in the home.

Such strong co-operation between Germany’s industrial sector coupled with a political landscape emphasizing stability and a heightened public ecological sensibility makes Germany fertile ground to lead the way in the transformation from a post-carbon economy to one run on renewable energy.