Switching to Solar: What we can learn from Germany's success in harnessing clean energy.

Bob Johnstone, Prometheus Books, New York 402 pages (illustrations). ISBN 978-1-61614-222-3. Paperback: $19 (6" x 9"). 

Reviewed by Michael DuVernois

Two of the biggest environmental issues looming over us, probably thought about far less than they should be, are global climate change and the decline of fossil fuels.  Of course these two issues are tightly coupled to each other; every liter of oil burned is 3 kg of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and one less liter of oil available. With 1 kW of solar energy arriving per square meter at the orbit of the Earth, solar energy is clearly the principle way forward from fossil fuels. As physicists, we go back to this very important number again and again: solar power is THE source of energy on Earth. It is the energy that drove the photosynthesis that grew the plants that turned into the oil. It is the energy that drives the winds and ocean waves, the other potential sources by which we can extract that energy in a sustainable manner.

Switching to Solar: What we can learn from Germany's success in harnessing clean energy looks closely at a practical model of how to make this transition from carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels to solar power. Germany, a cloudy, northern latitude nation, would not at first seem an obvious place for a major investment in solar electric power. But the German government was willing to lower the bar to entry by way of solar investment credits and electrical buy-back guarantees.

Since this book appeared a year ago, a lot has happened in the field of solar power. Solyndra has gone from a proud example of US manufacturing to a political football, and even a symbol of failed renewable energy dreams. The company lost $534 million and 1100 jobs when it failed. It had accounted for about 1.3% (either "only" or "fully" depending on your view) of the Department of Energy's loan portfolio. (Of course, the US has funded renewable energies at a much lower level than most other industrialized nations.)

Meanwhile also, the European economy (and in fact the European Experiment) has run into troubles. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany is in the process of shutting down nuclear power plants in favor of Russian natural gas. And more directly relevant to the discussion here, European nations are ending financial support for new solar installations. Part of the argument, in addition to the simple cost basis, is that the program has been a financial conduit not just to German solar manufacturers and installers, but primarily, and increasingly, to Chinese solar panel manufacturers. German subsidies of the solar industry are in rapid decline. It is probably too early to tell if the breakdown of the German solar resolution (or experiment) is short-term or not. Perhaps when economic times are better, there will be a return to the subsidies that help the solar industry start up. After all, there are government supports as well for the natural gas pipelines too.

The author, Bob Johnstone, is a journalist based in Australia who notes how few solar installations there are in one of the world’s sunniest nations. The factors which separate the solar explosion in Germany from the quiet acceptance of coal-burning in Australia are political will and a sensible economic setup. The German government provided a feed-in tariff; in essence, they guarantee that your electrical retailer will purchase your power at a rate sufficient to pay back your initial costs and provide you with a good return. It is a good deal on the government and electrical utility end if, and only if, the real price of electricity will increase in the future, perhaps due to a scarcity of fossil fuels. In the short term it is expensive, however.

With fracking, a renewed push for cheap natural gas exploitation, and difficult economic times, the economic proposition no longer looks nearly as good as it once did for these feed-in tariffs. How quickly things change…

The book lays out the case for a German model of feed-in tariffs as a sensible route towards a post-fossil-fuel world: making an investment now for an installed solar base when it is needed. Although the plan has run afoul of bad economic times and the difficulties of managing financial incentives aimed at local businesses in a worldwide economy, we will undoubtedly be looking seriously again at these plans in a few years. In the meantime, it is a worthwhile read for a practical look at government-industry cooperation leading to roofs of power-generating panels.

Michael DuVernois
University of Wisconsin

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.