Foreign Policy Blogs

100% Renewables (for Germany by 2050)

I had the opportunity to go to a real stimulating talk the other day.   Jochen Flasbarth, the President of the Federal Environment Agency of Germany, had just been to the big do at the NY Times, the “Energy for Tomorrow” conference.  Flasbarth was on a panel, moderated by Tom Friedman, with worthies such as Carol Browner; Steve Nadel, head of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; and Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy.  (You can see the panel’s discussion on energy independence at the conference website.)

Our event was much smaller and more intimate – a salon as it was called.  The discussion was hosted by The World Policy Institute and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.  The Böll Foundation folks have been doing pathbreaking work for years on renewable energy and other clean tech.

Flasbarth talked about how the German people’s antipathy toward nuclear power, which predated the Fukushima catastrophe, along with a lucid recognition of the dangers of climate change, had made the German government, along with industry, science, and the non-profit communities really focus on how to transition to a nuke-free, carbon-free future.  This would be, in essence, a technology-driven energy economy.

He talked about how the government is now aiming toward a 100% renewable electricity supply by 2050.  The press release on this from the agency (from almost two years ago now) quotes Flasbarth as saying that “The results of the study demonstrate that electricity supply can be generated completely from renewable energies by 2050 and that secure supply can be guaranteed at all times.”

Feasible?  It’s already well in train.  In fact, solar PV penetration into the German electric markets is already lowering the price for wholesale electric power at the hours of peak demand by 40% from only very recently.  This recent item from Renew Economy lays out how this is being accomplished.  I asked President Flasbarth to comment on this and he confirmed that this was indeed the case.  Prices during peak demand hours, as you know, have traditionally been way above the average for the rest of the day.  Solar PV is standing this paradigm on its head.  You have high demand on hot sunny days – largely because of air conditioning. But, you are also going to have the highest boost from PV during that same time under those same conditions.  Ergo, with sufficient PV capacity installed, you are going to be able to supply more-than-enough peak power to offset demand and lower prices.

And, my dear friends, the Europeans have been installing PV at astonishing rates.  See this graphic showing new installed (and decommissioned) capacity in Europe in 2011.  (See the full report for 2011 from the EWEA here.)

Asked about public support in Germany for the phasing out of nuclear power and the transition to 100% renewables, Flasbarth confirmed it was very enthusiastic.  For one thing, there is a robust renewable energy industry in Germany which supports nearly 400,000 jobs.  That’s a winning argument.  For more, see this paper from the Heinrich Böll Foundation:  Myths and Facts: The German Switch from Nuclear to Renewables.

I, for one, am chortling in my joy!

  • MVK Kannan.

    Great.. we need some plans to really work out to sustain.. So let us forget who is taking the lead or who does it first.. but a system should so evolve that irrespective of the Nations economic status or other glitches it should be available for all. After all the SUN is abundant in energy resource and it is FREE..

    • flubalubaful

      This will never work in the US for a number of reasons, the most important being the fact that the American government is very happy giving monopolies to specific businesses and those businesses have a lot of clout when it comes to allowing new technology to interfere with their massive profits, just look at a few examples, Broadband, electricity grid, Agriculture, mobile networks, and Healthcare.

      The only time that the US will do something that is in the interest of it’s people is if they can make a profit from it and allowing people to develop an infrastructure where the people make money from generating green energy is not going to happen, or it will happen in a very very minor way that does not impact on the energy monopolies.
      Proof, well i dont have the link but there is a state in America that has already said that if anyone wants to generate electricity to connect to the grid they have to pay a fee to the energy company, a monthly fee that will in fact make it a loss to anyone implementing renewable energy systems.

      This will not stop individuals creating systems for their own consumption, but as we see in Germany if the people work together with the full support of the government things really can change and improve. The fact that Germany could be completely off fossil fuels by 2050 is one very serious problem for the American government and their monopolies who will be in the same position as Healthcare is now with 1/2 the country wanting to improve the situation and half being led into support the old defunct business practices where only a few profit.

      • Howard Treesong

        I’m not saying you’re not right on the political front, but in the end, technology will win. The Danes are doing it, the Germans are going there, it will inspire other nations to do exactly the same. Over time it will not just be bad policy, it will be downright stupid not to use that technology. This technology only needs to reach a tipping point. Once that tipping point has been reached the process will reinforce itself.

        Once enough people see other people using renewable energy they will want to know why they are still paying a premium in energy prices when clearly it is possible to be energy self-sufficient at a very affordable cost. Wasn’t self-sufficiency a thing not too long ago in the US?

        The energy companies have to lose this one as their monopoly will cease to mean anything. Sure, you have control over all the oil. More power to you. Silly thing though: we don’t actually want any oil anymore (we actually do, because it’s being used for other things as well, just not for pouring into cars to burn as fuel). It’s kind of hard to claim a monopoly on the sun (not that that will stop someone from trying).

        Renewable energy is where it’s happening. There’s tremendous upside and very little downside.

        • woody

          Never underestimate America’s ability to remain downright stupid. We have a long, proud history of voting against our best interests. See healthcare debate.

          • Regan Reese

            See current president

  • dec7td

    What units is the graph in?

    • Tez

      Watt unit? Megawatt

  • Andrew Collins

    It will happen in USA right after oil wells run dry. Or maybe a few years after.

    • Howard Treesong

      It won’t take as long. More and more people will come to see gas fracking as the exceptionally damaging technology it is, they will come to understand that solar is a free gift of energy, this is the end of the power of oil companies.

      • James Markwell

        Good luck getting the money to pay congressmen off at the same rate that oil/gas lobbyist do. It’s not up to “the people”. Look at what they are doing to Tesla Motors. Banning them from selling in certain states. The people want Tesla cars, the sales show that. But backwards states like my beloved Texas are actually banning dealerships.

        Step one: no more lobbyists
        Step two: No more superpacs
        Step three: get all the rest of the bribes out of politics.
        Step four: no more lobbyists
        step five: no more massive contributions to campaigns.

        Once politicians are not being paid off by the Koch boys, Exxon Mobil and the like, the sooner they will realize they rely on us to get elected. Right now, they rely on the money being given by corporations. Without coporate “sponsorship”, you can’t get elected.

    • Hmm, I’m not so sure about this. As solar power panels get both more efficient and cheaper (thanks to wider adoption and production volumes), the users essentially get free energy following the initial purchase. Oil was never a really good idea to begin with, not just from an ecological perspective.

  • Heisenberg

    Has anybody heard of geothermal? its not limited to the amount of indium available and Iceland gets 20% of its energy that way… the only negative I’ve heard about geothermal is increased possibility of tectonic movements, thereby earthquakes and volcanic eruptions becoming more prevalent.

    • Brian

      Geothermal is very location dependent. Not all climates can support good geothermal sites. To be economically feasible, you need very hot soil that is reasonably close to the surface. The efficiency of thermal cycles is limited by the temperature difference between your hot and cold reservoirs. The cold reservoir is the atmosphere, and your hot reservoir is that hot soil in the ground. Basically, the hotter the soil, the more efficient it is to extract the energy. I agree though, it’s a good option when it is an available resource.

      Also, it’s possible to use PV without using indium. All large scale installations are currently based on silicon or cadmium telluride. Indium is only used for concentrated solar and a technology called CIGS, both of which are at a much smaller scale than Si and CdTe.

  • Joseph

    100% renewable energy? What’s the plan for low-solar low-wind days? This happens a lot in the winter, when water is not melting for hydro, either.

    • Bakari Kamau

      Do you think they didn’t account for this before pushing BILLIONS in subsidies over the past decade? Geothermal and wind more than make up the difference. Come on, man.

      • Ian Melchior

        It’s a valid question. Do you know the answer?

        • DK

          Yes, at that amount of megawattage, there is a daily overage. Energy is stored for delivery when wind and sun energy is low.

        • Lord Byng

          If you want to go to 100% renewable, you need a storage method. There’s a lot of work going into large-format storage, including things as simple as pumping water back into a reservoir to generate power later. But it’s likely the main reason why the target is 2050 and not 2020.

          • Danskak

            Errm…. We have been pumping water back into reservoirs for decades. It is done because energy demand is so variable, and coal-fire power stations can’t be controlled on nearly a fast enough time scale. The new work is mostly on thermal storage afaik.

            Still, we will probably need plenty of new storage.

        • Danskak

          The answer is a combination of hydro, power supernetworking, biogas (from garbage), geothermal, tidal, wave power and battery storage (this will come with ubiquity of electric cars and improved battery tech). Also thermal energy storage and efficiency improvements. Hydro is not normally severely affected by winter, to my knowledge – I’ve only heard of problems in Siberia. German scientists have shown that the combination of wind, solar and biogas is enough on its own. Of course it requires an intelligent power grid – this is what I mean by power supernetworking: when the wind isn’t blowing much in one place, it often is in another.

        • Brian

          You should look into CSP (concentrated solar power). It’s another type of solar energy, but it has storage capabilities. Basically the solar irradiation is concentrated into a molten salt, which gets extremely hot. The salts have a high heat capacity so they can stay hot for a long time. This way, the molten salt can act as an energy source to run thermal cycles even during the night when there is no more solar energy coming in.

          This is just one approach. Pumped hydro is also another interesting one, as Lord Byng also mentioned. But yeah, it’s definitely still a concern.

    • RPKH

      All the methods for generating energy have their drawbacks. For now (and most probably for the next 20 years) the energy production efficiency for “green” solutions are terrible compared to carbon, oil or nuclear. Ami I the only person to think that for us to go 100% renewable, we should do something about…. our consumption?
      The biggest energy consumer in the world is the industry
      Everything we buy costs energy to produce.
      That’s also one of the main problem with the “green” solutions of today. It not only takes allot of energy to create that solution but also to maintain it functioning optimal over time while their energy generation is relatively small.

  • They need to use more electric cars first. Germany still consume over 2 000 000 barrels of oil per day. Also a lot of natural gas.

  • Daniel

    Interesting how the Americans call their conference the “Energy of Tomorrow” conference, but the Germans see it as the energy of today. A little prudence can go a long way.

  • Matt


  • David Gilmore

    I’m surprised, given that the New York Times was hosting the conference, that they didn’t have John Broder coordinate the event and sabotage all of the green technology being demonstrated.

  • DrewRL

    This is why Germany is a future energy superpower. In 2050 they will be supplying clean power to Europe (they are already doing this) while the rest of the world (particularly America) struggles to catch up.

    UNLESS . . . America gets a running start now and catches and passes them. It’s going to take a lot of work but we are deploying today, and we can deploy faster and faster as time goes on and costs come down.

    If any homeowner is thinking about going solar, now is the time to do it.

  • GermanReader

    Just a side-note from Germany: the support for the subsidies that power this solar boom is far from universal over here, because basically ppl who install PV get a fixed price per watt (=high, government-mandated interest rates) paid by the consumer which has been driving electricity prices through the roof (prices paid by consumers, not prices paid by energy suppliers at the energy exchange).


Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

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