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Energiewende: Deutschland and Renewables

Thoughts on renewables in the face of cheap, cheap oil.

For those of you who drive a car, you might recently have noticed a dive in the gas price. I filled my Mazda 6 with less than $20. While the common man is skipping to the beat of cheap oil, the businessmen and women of the south are sweating like it’s a Texas summer. The United State’s oil market is run by behemoth companies, and this means serious consequences when the per barrel price drops. Schlumberger announced they are laying off 9,000 employees in response to the cuts—that’s nearly double the size of my university class.

This is not the first time American markets fell victim to the barrel price. The late 1970’s saw a national crisis when Arab oil embargos led to oil scarcity. In 1979 Jimmy Carter even put solar panels on top of the white house as a symbol of commitment to other energy sources in the face of public panic. However, the markets eventually stabilized and the Reagan administration promptly removed the panels from the roof. After all, the oil barons pump liquid gold into the cars and homes of millions—this is how our economy works. Big oil and big business.

But what if there was a different model of how things could be?

Enter the Energiewende

In my German Culture and Thought class, we started studying Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transformation. The country is currently pushing yearly averages of 30 percent renewable energy, with numbers even higher during the summer months. The national goal is 80 percent renewable energy by 2050. How did the country’s major utilities make the jump to switch over to renewables?

They didn’t make the decision, the people did. Community co-ops and individuals are responsible for 65 percent of renewable energy production. Utilities, only 6 percent.

This success is in large part due to government policy that is driving the industry—there are economic incentives for people to slap a solar panel on their roof and link to the grid. It's only half the price of installing a panel in the U.S., and the owner gets fixed preferential prices thanks to the Feed-in Tariff. This green energy revolution is not just specific to Deutschland—according to an online Coursera class I am taking, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are also killing it in this green economy by renewables. (note: the class is called Greening the Economy: Lessons from Scandinavia and it is from Lund University, so there may be bias.)

I am not an energy policy expert. As of today, I could not hold an interesting conversation about renewables with anyone in the industry. But it just makes me think: oil is such a big part of my life in Oklahoma. It runs the economy, it runs the job market, and the taxes and donations from the industry fund many state and nonprofit initiatives. An American transition to renewables would be a hard road leading to many lost jobs and a slump in GDP—but even still. What would happen if the United States had its own Energiewende?

I don’t know the answer. Maybe someday, we will all find out.

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