Comment: Lessons for the US in Germany’s energy transition

Source: By Stephanie McClellan, The • Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2015

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Obama meet this week in Washington, they are surveying the world’s energy future through a window that Germany opened — one with a spectacular view of the low-carbon horizon.

For decades, Germany has been a first mover in clean energy. After suffering contamination from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the nation walked away from nuclear power, and it slammed the door shut after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011. Now, the country is saying auf wiedersehen to coal, on the way to reducing its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

Both the US and Germany powered their way into the 20th century with a coal-driven economy. Now, the two countries can share a new 21st-century energy future.

Renewables now supply fully a quarter of Germany’s energy needs — a dramatic transition that is the result of deliberate, courageous choices by its leaders. The country’s ambitious energy goals were ridiculed by critics, who predicted dire economic consequences. Indeed, the nation absorbed the initial costs of creating a new industrial market. Energy planners from around the globe watched with interest as Germany has mastered a learning curve onmany renewable technologies, including significant lessons in offshore wind.

Today, Germany is having the last laugh as its economy reaps substantial benefits from this thrust into renewables. Germany’s GDP has grown steadily over the period of reducing emissions, with the clean energy sector adding more than 1.5 million jobs — all the while creating cleaner skies and stabilizing users’ electricity prices. Offshore wind has revitalized coastal industries and ports in Germany and other northern European countries.

Making use of a global “second mover” advantage, the US can learn from the lessons of our ally’s trials and errors and take advantage of the cost reductions resulting from Europeans’ investment in offshore wind.

But we can’t afford to sit back and observe much longer. The U.S. needs to get in the game for offshore wind now in order become a significant global player.

Germany itself isn’t stopping. It doubled its wind energy capacity from 2011 to 2014 and is expected to install more offshore wind this year than will any other nation.

At the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind (SIOW), we are bridging the knowledge of Germany and other European energy mavericks to East coast states.

Collaborating with the German Offshore Energy Foundation and others, SIOW is creating a pipeline of knowledge from Germany and other European energy leaders to East coast states on how the US can make offshore wind affordable.   We’re talking with German policymakers and businesses to find out what has worked for them — and nearly as important, what hasn’t.

The U.S. East Coast has an enormous appetite for energy. Fortunately, it also possesses an enormous offshore wind resource, enough to supply all of the region’s needs for electricity and heating.  In fact, the most significant developable renewable energy resource from North Carolina to Maine is the massive volume of offshore wind that blows just off the coast. And even better, that offshore wind blows during the points of highest energy demand.

The United States is off to a good start on clean energy. Wind and solar have more than tripled in capacity since 2008 and cost has dropped by half. Attention recently has turned to the Atlantic’s offshore energy resources; the power and pure potential the region’s offshore wind dwarfs the currently contemplated oil and gas energy resources.

The United States should follow Germany’s lead and create our own home-grown clean energy industry. We can take Germany’s “first mover” platform and build our own foundation for energy independence, turning our fossil-fuel-choked industrial base into one with cleaner air, new jobs, and stable prices, and energy self-determination.

We see a near future in which “offshore energy” conjures an image not of oil platforms, but of wind turbines.

McClellan is director of the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind.