The Energiewende – made in the USA

To many people, both inside and outside Germany, the Energiewende seems special. Questions therefore often focus on where the Germans got the idea. Craig Morris says they stole it from an American.

Soft Path

Germany’s Energiewende owes its intellectual roots to Americans like Amory Lovins who conceptualized a soft energy path based on decentral renewables and efficiency.

In 1980, Swiss nuclear researcher Walter Seifritz expressed a common sentiment at the time that the knowledge required for solar technology is “simple,” whereas nuclear requires “an active mind” to deal with the “much more complex intellectual challenges.” He wasn’t calling for solar. Rather, the statement is just one example of the push for high tech solutions to problems brought about by, well, high tech.

The Germans do not doubt that solar (or renewable energy) is simple and nuclear is complex. As the late Hermann Scheer wrote in 1993 as a comment to the pro high-tech camp, “By using solar energy, we do not gain any ability to go beyond human limits. Rather, we ‘only’ gain the ability to live within these limits.” (Hermann, we miss you).

Scheer himself used to use a wonderful phrase, saying that producing a lot of electricity at central power plants to provide the small amounts needed by households was like “cutting butter with a chainsaw.” I long thought that memorable image was his. But recently, I saw an old quote from him, in which he attributes the phrase to its actual creator: Amory Lovins.

In 1976, this young American energy researcher divided up our options into two basic camps: the soft path and the hard path. If you want to understand the distinction, Lovins’ original publication is still an excellent place to start. But though the concept of “soft energy” comes from an American, it’s hard to say the idea itself is American; too many Americans remain unconvinced. Take this recent quote from the Wall Street Journal:

“We should encourage the switch from coal to gas in the generation of electricity, provide incentives for energy efficiency, get nuclear power back on track and keep developing solar power and electricity storage. We should also invest in research on ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, by fertilizing the ocean or fixing it through carbon capture and storage.

The argument seems reasonable on the surface; the author sounds like he is merely leaving open all options. Yet, in Germany, any such statement would sound like it came from the fringe, not from the mainstream. To understand why, we can start by understanding that geo-engineering (fertilizing the ocean), carbon capture and storage, and nuclear fall into the hard path. It’s not that these things won’t work; it’s that, if the soft path does, then the hard path is simply not worth pursuing. We don’t know, say, what the effects of geo-engineering will be, so why take the risk of finding out if it’s not necessary? The idea is known as the “precautionary principle” in English, and I read here that the idea was actually taken from the Germans.

We don’t have the space here to weigh the realism of the hard path versus the soft path. Instead, I would simply like to point out the clear evidence that the Energiewende is based on Lovins’ concept of the soft path. The idea did not come out of thin air; people such as Barry Commoner clearly inspired Lovins. But the Energiewende’s link to Lovins is clear. Exhibit A was Hermann Scheer’s quote above.

Exhibit B: The Öko-Institut is celebrating the midpoint of the Energiewende this year. We have 35 years to reach targets for 2050, and 35 years ago the Institute published the first Energiewende book. On a new website, the researchers present an overview of the first half of the Energiewende, and the list of external resources includes only one source that is not in German: the website of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which Lovins founded.

Exhibit C: Last year, German journal Energie und Management published an interview (in German) with one of the co-authors of the 1985 Energiewende book (also published by Öko-Institut). The author said they basically investigated the distinction between “a hard and a soft path in energy supply,” adding that the idea came from Amory Lovins.

The Energiewende has been an implementation of Lovins’ soft path from the outset. I rest my case.

Please note that, in this post, I am not trying to convince anyone that the soft path will work or the hard path won’t. Indeed, some German experts will take umbrage at my wording above: if the soft path works. They would say it definitely will work. I say the soft path can work and is thus worth pursuing. And that is the main takeaway – the hard path has been pursued all along with mixed success. As I recently explained, the United States, Germany, France, and the EU have put tremendous effort into nuclear only to find that it is indeed hard. The recent plans for new nuclear in the UK also suggest that the soft path is increasingly less expensive.

One commenter below that article asked, “How many proponents imagined a world with renewables and soft energy back in 1970’s [sic]”? But he was comparing huge governmental budgets behind hard-path policies actually implemented with some lone voice calling for soft energy (sorry, Amory). In reality, the Energiewende may be the world’s first explicit attempt to implement Lovins’ soft energy path. Even if you don’t think the soft path will work, surely we can all agree – as proponents of science – that at least one soft-path experiment is called for.

The other option is not the hard path anyway. Countries that have not chosen the soft path are not going down the hard one, but instead debating hard and soft. In reality, the only option to the soft path is unproductive debate resulting in inaction.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. S. Herb says

    I don’t suppose that this is the most effective place to be giving hints to the Sveriges Riksbank, but my hint for them is that Amory Lovins should be a hot contender for the next Nobel Economics prize.

  2. Jeffrey Michel says

    In my experience, the Worldwatch Institute and particularly Chris Flavin were more influential in promoting the idea of decentralized generation. They published a number of studies and handbooks oriented toward practical implementation. In Germany, the essential concept of the Energiewende can be traced back to before WWI. Germany’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Wilhelm Ostwald, promoted solar energy in a 1893 lecture called Die Energiequellen der Zukunft. His house in Großbothen is called Haus Energie. In 1912, he commissioned a cannon foundry in Dresden to produce a wind turbine. Before and during the Third Reich, the Lebensraum concept for the settlement of Eastern Europe relied on Energiewende precursor concepts for generating energy by Germanic farmers at Ukrainian frontier outposts. The German Democratic Republic published a book in the 1980’s on local wind power that reproduced wind maps from 1944. The Germans were quite obviously not waiting for the Americans to blaze the trail to renewable energies. Had it not been for the lignite industry, they would be even farther along this path.

  3. Mahdi says

    It is always good to follow Lovins’ thoughts. He seems to be constantly 10 years ahead of the mainstream.

  4. Geir Gundersen says

    I don’t think putting noisy and ugly windmills on every hill, and building vast solar panel arrays, connected by a monster grid to distribute the power is a soft path. Also, nuclear technology is in its infancy stage because development has been stumped by radiophobic activists and shortsighted politicians. New nuclear can be small, efficient and safe, and leave much more space for nature. It can be plentiful enough for everybody to enjoy a high standard of living, without climate change, oil wars or poverty.
    The path to new nuclear is not hard or soft, it’s the only path forward. We should walk it.

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