The plan will require two transformations, one micro and one macro. The first is an unruly, subsidy-fed explosion of wind, solar and biomass power, a “strange mixture of idealism and greed,” as one energy boss calls it. The second is the effort to pull this into a system providing reliable and affordable electricity. Protagonists of the micro version see themselves as democratising economic and political power. The renewable-energy law entitles anybody who puts in a solar panel or a windmill to sell surplus power to the grid, receiving a generous “feed-in tariff” guaranteed over 20 years. This gives renewable electricity priority over conventional power. Not surprisingly, renewables grew ten times faster than the OECD average from 1990 to 2010 and now account for 20% of electricity output (see chart). The government’s target is 35% by 2020. Germany gets more electricity from renewable sources than any other big country.
The return on capital can top 20% a year in the best spots. But do not confuse harvesters of sun and wind with electricity plutocrats. “One important goal is to break the monopoly” of the four big power companies that dominate the market, says Hermann Albers, president of the Federal Wind Energy Association. Municipal utility companies plan to boost their share of electricity production from a tenth to at least a fifth by 2020. More than 100 municipalities want to be “100% renewable”.
The number of “energy co-operatives” has risen sixfold since 2007, to 586 last year. Solar parks have migrated from farms and family houses to apartment blocks. “Roof exchanges” match owners with investors. Niebull allows only wind farms in which residents can buy stakes, lest landowners become local fat cats and others rebel against the project. In 2010 over 50% of renewable-energy capacity was in the hands of individuals or farmers, according to trend:research, a consultancy. The big four had just 6.5%.
This is perking up sleepy regions. Farmers are likelier to remain on the land. Services, from consultants who guide investors through the subsidy jungle to specialist windmill repairmen, have taken root in towns. The taxes paid by Niebull’s wind park are one of the town’s main sources of revenue; in smaller settlements they may be almost the only local source.
The micro-level works almost too well. Schleswig-Holstein plans to generate three times as much renewable energy as it consumes and to export the surplus south and west. Southern states are keen to produce their own renewable power, too. Bavaria talks of self-sufficiency. The states’ windpower targets add up to double the federal government’s goal of 36 gigawatts by 2020.
Solar power, which consumes half the total subsidy but provides just a fifth of renewable electricity, is racing ahead of target. The Energiewende raises costs, unsettles supply and provokes resistance at grass-roots level. The system coped with the first influx of renewable energy, says Rainer Baake, who heads a lobby group called Agora Energiewende. But the next 20% will require a transformation.
One fight is over who will pay. The most energy-intensive consumers are shielded from the feed-in tariff, leaving ordinary folk, including pensioners and the unemployed, to foot the bill. The nuclear shutdown pushed up industry’s electricity bills relative to its competitors, argues Annette Loske of VIK, which represents big consumers. The political assault on their exemption undermines the confidence they need to invest. An even bigger worry is supply interruptions, which can disrupt factories even if they last for fractions of a second. VIK says they have risen 30% in the past three years. The odds of outright power cuts have jumped.