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Trailblazer Germany offers insights into switch to ‘green’ energy

Dec 19. 2016
Sebastian Zoepp, chief executive of sustainable development network Spreeakademie, explains about Germany
Sebastian Zoepp, chief executive of sustainable development network Spreeakademie, explains about Germany
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By The Nation

During a recent visit to Berlin to study Germany’s energy transition, what surprised Asian journalists most was hearing that the country’s Federal Mining Act is set above its constitution.

The all-powerful act was issued by Adolf Hitler as an attempt to eliminate Nazi Germany’s dependence on oil and switch to domestic natural resources. 

“It meant he allowed [mining] companies to take the land from people and move them … without having to do anything for them,” said Sebastian Zoepp, chief executive of sustainable development network Spreeakademie, who led our field trip to see old and new energy sources in the Lusatia region of eastern Germany.

“Our constitution usually ensures personal rights on property, but the law ‘broke’ the constitution,” he added.

The law governs the structure and responsibilities of mining authorities, entitlement to mining, and mine safety.

There have been many legal challenges to the legislation, explained Carel Mohn of the non-profit Clean Energy Wire. But all have failed due to one countering argument – that mining is in the public interest. 

The impacts on ordinary Germans are visible in Lusatia, a mining region since the mid-19th century. As 23 per cent of electricity generation in Germany still comes from burning lignite coal, mining remains an important industry here. 

We met Karl-Heinze Handreck, who lives in the village of Taubendorf, located next to an open-cast mine gouged from the green countryside. For the past nine years he has been waiting anxiously for a decision from the mine’s owner on a mulled expansion of the operation.

The 65-year-old and other villagers, most of whom are pensioners, have suffered ever since the mine began operating. As well as causing noise pollution, the mine has robbed them of their groundwater meaning they have to pay for it to be pumped in from 15 kilometres away.

Germany launched its “Energiewende”, or energy transition, in the 1990s and has been making strenuous efforts to switch to renewables ever since. But the new policy is facing formidable and mounting challenges. 

Energiewende calls for all German nuclear power stations to be phased out by 2022 along with existing coal-fired plants. The country will instead rely heavily on renewables – particularly wind, solar and biomass energies – coupled with better efficiency and demand management.

 By 2050, Germany aims to have switched completely to renewables and thereby cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 to 95 per cent from 1990 levels.

The foundations of Energiewende lie in wind and solar, said Philipp Godron of Agora Energiewende, a think-tank focused on dialogue with energy policymakers.

Wind and solar are the cheapest renewable energy technologies and have the most potential, said Godron, adding that their prominence in Germany’s energy mix would fundamentally transform the current system and the country’s energy market.

Since the transition took off in 2000, millions of ordinary Germans have become energy producers. They have invested in solar panels on their houses and bought shares in wind parks.

One example is Thomas Burchardt, who in 1999 helped launch a wind-farm project for his community in Drehnow, Brandenburg, in a move against lignite mining.

The community set aside 10 per cent of public land to house seven wind turbines and reap their energy. The wind farm now makes enough money to pay for public construction works and cultural events in the community.

Germans now vilify a Nazi leader responsible for one of the greatest atrocities of the century and also oppose his policy of ruthless exploitation of natural resources as part of the war effort.

Like fellow Germans, Burchardt believes that sustainable energy is the key to achieving “peace”.

“Because if we continue expanding our economy and fighting for more and more resources – for example oil and gas – the fighting will eventually lead to war. But if you have renewable energy or [your] primary resource comes for free, you do not have to fight,” Burchardt said. 

However, Germany’s green dream will not be realised easily.

According to Zeopp, the country cannot meet its electricity demand with renewables alone, which so far only account for around 36 per cent of the electricity generated.

Meanwhile questions are being asked about whether energy security can be achieved by relying on fickle sources like the sun and the wind.

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