Recently, I spent a week in Germany studying the country’s energy transition. Elected officials and businesses there have committed the country to aggressive renewable energy goals during the past couple decades; meanwhile, they’ve also mandated phase-outs for nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
Here’s what I took away from my time there, and what Kentucky could draw from Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels:
- Reinvention takes time and involves failure. It’s been more than 20 years since Germany began instituting the policies that are behind the Energiewende, or energy transition, and some of them are just beginning to show real momentum. The plan sets out long-term goals that the country won’t reach until 2050 or later. That requires patience. And Germany’s former coal mining areas are working on their own kinds of reinvention in concert with the Energiwende. But it’s been difficult for many places, like in Gelsenkirchen. The city should be commended for its tenacity; it tried to transition from coal to solar energy, and failed. Now, it’s trying again — this time as a center for research of all renewable energies.
- There’s a cost. You know that old adage “it takes money to make money”? It is definitely true in this case. Reimagining an entire country’s energy grid is unbelievably expensive, and it has raised Germans’ electricity prices. But so far, the country hasn’t seen a mass exodus of manufacturers to places with cheaper electricity — a common argument of the coal industry. It also takes money to turn a region’s economy around. Zollverein — the impressive monument to the Ruhr Valley’s coal mining past — has cost about $320 million so far, spread out over 25 years. Now, according to a spokeswoman, Zollverein turns a profit. But that return on investment took a long time to realize.
- Preserve heritage. Even when reinventing a coal mining area and trying to move away from fossil fuels, it’s important not to forget the past. Just like in Kentucky, people living in Germany’s Ruhr Valley are proud of their industrial heritage and of the coal they mined that powered the country’s economy. They don’t want to forget their history and culture, but at the same time they realize the need for cleaner sources of energy. Some of the region’s landmarks — like Zollverein — pay tribute to the past while embracing the future.
- Personal buy-in is necessary. No matter how effective they are, government policies will only get you so far. The Energiewende has reached some short-term goals because people have bought into the concept, invested in renewable energy and taken steps to curtail energy consumption. I didn’t address this issue directly while I was in Germany, but I expect that’s due to economics more than altruism. Installing solar panels is a good investment for many in Germany, because of the generous feed-in tariff. Likewise, with high electricity prices, saving money also makes economic sense.
From Bundestag to Bluegrass is a five-part web and radio series examining Germany’s energy transition—and its potential lessons for Kentucky.
Above all, I came away believing there are aspects of Germany’s energy transition — and how coal-producing areas are adapting — that could be modified to work in Kentucky.
Coal is going to be mined and burned in the commonwealth for a long time. But coal will likely never play as big of a role in the state’s economy and electricity portfolio as it did in the past. The downturn in the coal industry has happened faster than many expected, but it’s not too late for Kentucky to make adjustments.
Germany doesn’t have all the answers. But that country’s experience should be instructive for Kentuckians wondering about the commonwealth’s second act.
This story was originally published on December 13, 2015.