Conservative or conservationist? Not in Germany!
German weekly Der Spiegel, which has made a career out of denigrating renewables, now wonders whether the environment will survive the switch to green energy. In doing so, the weekly acts as though concern about the environment among proponents of renewables is something new – and as though conservation and political conservatism were something new in Germany.
"The decision to hastily shut down all German nuclear power plants by 2022 has shifted the political fronts," writes Der Spiegel in an article this week that is unfortunately not free of the usual distortions in the magazine's articles on renewables. But most of all, the main argument is overstated.
Granted, Spiegel does quote Robert Habeck, the Energiewende Minister of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein (the only state to have such a ministry), speaking of "friction between environment and climate protection advocates, even in my party," and Habeck even goes on to call the Greens "an infrastructure party" and speaks of "reversed roles," with the Christian Democrats now allegedly being the conservationists.
The situation is not, however, as black-and-white as Der Spiegel makes it out to be. Conservation and conservatism have long gone hand-in-hand in Germany, with Peter Ahmels being one prominent example. A Christian Democrat voter, he served as president of the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) before moving over to German environmental organization DUH in 2009. Another example is Wolf von Fabeck, a former military officer who joined forces with his local pastor to found a solar group back in the late 1980s; they got their town, Aachen, to adopt something for solar called "full-cost compensation," which the world now knows as feed-in tariffs. The list could be continued...
Der Spiegel distorts the picture when it speaks of "many environmentalists who want to see the expansion of renewable energies at any price. They set the tone in government agencies." The charge is not uncommon; only recently, a friend of mine asked, "why do these people want to put wind turbines everywhere." The problem is that neither my friend nor Der Spiegel is able to name a single person who wants renewables "at any price" and "everywhere" – because no such person exists.
Der Spiegel claims that the German state of Baden-Württemberg (where my friend and I live, incidentally) is a good example. Governed by Germany's first Green Minister-President, the state has raised its target "from 400 to roughly 2,500 to wind turbines by 2020. And in the party's reckoning, nature is standing in the way." Sounds like the Greens have gone berserk in the Black Forest.
Nevermind that, in 2012, the state was once again last in the country in terms of newly installed capacity (aside from Germany's three city-states) at a mere 19 megawatts from 9 turbines, equivalent to roughly 0.75 wind turbines per month. Wind turbines have service lives of 20 years, so at that rate the state would max out at 180 turbines.
If you can read German, take a look at the state's new law yourself (PDF). There are sections on heritage protection, environmental protection, "taboo zones" (such as nature reserves and national parks), and community involvement.
Over the past year, I have worked closely with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the German Green Party's think tank, and I can confirm that the debate Der Spiegel mentions over the environment and energy goals is nothing new. On the organization's website that explains the energy transition to the world in English (disclaimer: I am the lead author), we have charts almost everywhere – but none for biomass because the chart proposed indicated a range of the potential of biomass, and there were concerns within the Greens that this potential might be overstated.
As Der Spiegel points out, biomass has been a bone of contention in Germany, but the concern has already slowed down the market, as Renewables International recently reported. Alexander Knebel, spokesperson for Germany's Renewable Energy Agency (AEE), told Renewables International that roughly 2.5 million hectares of the approximately 12 million hectares of farmland in Germany is devoted to corn alone, but most of that harvest is used as feedstock, with around 900,000 hectares devoted to biogas production. And he points out that the sector is also concerned about monocultures and is therefore looking into alternatives, such as sugar beets and broader crop rotation patterns.
Finally, Der Spiegel talks about forests giving way to renewables, but as Knebel explains, Germany's forest area is growing strongly: "Forests cover some 31 percent of Germany's land area, and from 1992 to 2008 this area expanded by 176 square kilometers per year."
Overall, the attempt to play environmentalists off against proponents of renewables is nothing new. I wrote about such a case in 2003, when an American opponents of wind power claimed that the Audubon Society was concerned about wind turbines killing birds. In fact, the Audubon Society had a position paper on wind power even at the time, and it thought wind was great overall (though, unsurprisingly, wind turbines should not be built everywhere).
The same thing happens in Germany. On a recent TV show, Hubert Weiger, head of the German chapter of Friends of the Earth (BUND), was asked why his organization opposed offshore wind, and he responded, "We have opposed a single proposal out of the roughly 50 made, and you're asking me why we oppose offshore wind?" (Craig Morris)