A recent Time article entitled “Germans happily pay more for renewable energy. But would others?” has a refreshing focus but makes obvious mistakes. Craig Morris says it also shows how hard a time the Anglo world has properly understanding the Energiewende.
Originally published at Oilprice.com, the article reprinted at Time finally sets the record straight in mainstream media on one issue: there are no public demonstrations against the cost of the Energiewende. The author wonders why that is and gives an unsatisfactory answer, however – which is no surprise in light of the obvious confusion in the text.
Take this statement:
“A 2013 survey revealed that 84 percent of Germans would be happy to pay even more if the country could find a way to go 100 percent renewable.”
As a collector of surveys on the Energiewende’s popularity, I found that number unusually high. The poll is from September 2013, and that same month a similar survey found that 60 percent of Germans already believed the cost of the transition – which 68 percent still supported – was too high.
In sourcing that claim, the Time article links back to a report in English from Deutsche Welle, where we read a surprisingly different statement:
“An overwhelming majority – some 84 percent – of those interviewed said they expect the new government to push for a quick switch to an energy system powered 100 percent by renewable sources of energy.”
In other words, the article’s source does not back up the claim.
And it gets worse – the author also conflates power bills and power prices (and simultaneously energy and electricity): “Germans’ power bills are the highest in Europe.” Once again, we are provided with a source article from the BBC to back up this untrue claim, but the article does not even mention Germany, aside from a chart on “the price of gas in the EU 15 and USA” (Germany turns out to have the fifth lowest natural gas prices in EU 15).
Probably, the journalist meant to say that Germany has the second (!) highest retail electricity prices in the EU after Denmark. German power bills (consisting of prices times the amount consumed) are well in line with those in other countries, however, because high prices are an incentive for lower consumption. Without seeming to notice any discrepancy, the Time article states both that the Germans paid “an average of 90 euros a month in 2013” (about $119) for electricity and that “the average bill for a household has reached 85 euros a month,” but whatever figure you take, such a power bill would be unremarkable in the United States, for instance, where the power prices in a number of states exceed these amounts (see this PDF overview for 2012).
Then comes the unfamiliarity with German energy policy:
“Brazil’s model has similarities to Germany’s, with the government carrying out public auctions for contracts.”
The German government has never carried out a public auction for renewables! Indeed, one main amendment to renewables policy this year will phase in such auctions for large projects over the next three years in pilot projects to start gathering experience.
If the journalist is not familiar with the policy Germany actually has (feed-in tariffs), he is ill-equipped to answer his own main question:
“So how can this model of high targets, high fees and high public support find traction in other countries? The answer is, with difficulty.”
The author briefly hints at “locally owned wind and solar infrastructure” (why is biomass so often forgotten?) along with “prolonged public education” – as though the German government had spent decades convincing the public to go green. An equally compelling reading is that Germany is an industrial powerhouse, and the government tends to protect its industry, with the job of standing up for the environment largely left up to civil society and citizens.
But the journalist has a different take: “The German public is a willing participant in the government’s efforts.” Or maybe Germany is a somewhat healthy democracy, so the government is a willing participant in the German public’s efforts – and that is the real reason why the German success story will only “find traction in other countries with difficulty.” After all, German utilities have hardly invested in renewables at all, with citizens and institutional investors making up nearly 90 percent of investments – and utilities seeing their bottom lines hit as renewables offset demand for conventional power.
Foreign journalists continue to portray German citizens as merely passive consumers – and the Energiewende as a project handed down by the government, not a grassroots, bottom-up movement. But go back to the Deutsche Welle report above, and you find the sentence,
“83 percent said they want the profits and costs of the energy turnaround to be distributed fairly among citizens and energy companies.”
They want the “profits and costs” distributed fairly – did you catch that? It means a lot of the profits are flowing back to citizens, who are not just consumers. If German citizens are allowed to invest, they are also willing to pay more.
Therein lies the difficulty for other countries: it will not be easy to get governments everywhere to become willing participants in putting the interests of their citizens ahead of the interests of utilities.