Three lessons from Germany’s solar energy milestone

German Chancellor Merkel’s extraordinary push to abandon nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is paying off.

During the last weekend of May 2012, German solar plants produced a global record 22 gigawats of electricity per hour. This is equal to the output of more than 20 nuclear power plants and supplied nearly 50 percent of the nation’s midday electricity on the Saturday.

From Reuters:

The record-breaking amount of solar power shows one of the world’s leading industrial nations was able to meet a third of its electricity needs on a work day, Friday, and nearly half on Saturday when factories and offices were closed.[]

Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

After the Fukushima disaster (which is a still worsening crisis) Merkel rallied her coalition to end the use of nuclear power. Critics of the move said it would lead to higher carbon emissions, but this has not been the case. For Merkel, who had previously pushed legislation to extend the life of reactors, the policy shift was an abrupt U-turn.

People elsewhere can learn from the German withdrawal from nuclear and its success with renewables. Here are a few lessons:

  1. Milestones Matter: This 22 gigawatt milestone has many people talking, tweeting, and writing stories about Germany and its renewable energy industry. Identifying and celebrating significant milestones can encourage conversations about needed policy change and investments, dispelling myths and cynicism with easy-to-communicate markers.

  2. Crises Matter: It is impossible to deny the role that the Fukushima disaster had in producing this milestone. The ongoing nightmare in Fukushima has rightly produced disruptive anxiety about the cost and risks of nuclear power. As Naomi Klein showed in The Shock Doctrine, the aftermath of disasters are often used to promote and carry out resisted changes. Although Klein emphasized the use (and creation) of disasters to permit neoliberal restructuring, the events in Fukushima show the potential of Black Swan-type events in changing energy polices entrenched by corrupt power and institutional inertia.

    Preparing contingency plans for energy and climate-related crises means we will have a toolkit to draw from when unpredictable, but anticipated, events occur. The German case is instructive: the policies of the German Greens, long opposed to nuclear power, could be drawn on in the political crisis that followed the Fukushima disaster.

  3. Leaders Matter: Merkel did a surprising u-turn on nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. There were a number of factors motivating her shift, including rising support for the Greens and encouragement from the German renewable energy industry, but her decisive role can’t be discounted. Other “conservative” politicians should look to her example on energy and the environment, noting her flexibility and ability to translate global events into an assertive domestic policy agenda.

The Fukushima disaster created a moment of opportunity where people and policymakers were able to see through disinformation campaigns by corrupt power, cynical self-interest, and over-confident, short-term thinking. This encouraging German milestone points to the opportunity of disruptive events – even massively tragic ones like Fukushima’s crisis – when existing ideas can be picked up and repackaged by a calculating and adaptable leader.

See also:
Juan Cole –In Race against Carbon Catastrophe, Solar Power is Making Strides
Reuters – Merkel vows to push post-nuclear energy strategy
Damian Carrington – Busting the carbon and cost myths of Germany’s nuclear exit

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