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When It Comes To Energy, What Does Germany Have That We Don't?

This article is more than 6 years old.

By current American standards, it seems fantastically bold: Within three months of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany’s leaders set a course to abandon nuclear power, sever the country’s reliance on coal, and re-position its entire power supply onto renewable energy sources.

The bigger issue of Germany’s unified energy strategy and America’s lack of one is just that — the ability to think big and act big on big issues.

As impressive as the speed and magnitude of the endeavor is the discipline shown thus far by all factions of Germany’s multi-party political structure toward completion of the plan, set for 2050, with nuclear power to be phased out by 2022. Unsurprisingly, the transition is already proving difficult. Huge societal changes pose challenges. But determined societies meet them.

The far-reaching German energy transition was barely even an issue in the country’s recent elections. Imagine that.

In fact, imagine America undertaking such a sweeping reformation of the energy status quo. It’s not easy, particularly when one considers the narrow profile of energy issues here, and how they’re being framed. Of the three basic energy areas — oil, alternative sources, and overall energy strategy — there are three starkly political flash points which overwhelm any attempt to fashion a rational, long-term policy. The three are the Keystone XL pipeline, Solyndra, and an energy efficiency bill sponsored by two U.S. senators.

Keystone would pipe tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The method of extracting oil from the sand beneath the forests of Alberta leaves environmental types aghast. While the pipeline’s fate rests in President Obama’s hands, the project’s politics bubble up everywhere.  House Republicans are likely to include a measure to expedite construction of the pipeline in a bill that will, among other things, delay Obamacare. Debate about the pipeline has centered more on the construction jobs it will create than the energy issues it will, or won’t, address.

Solyndra, a California-based manufacturer of solar panels, went bankrupt in 2011 and left taxpayers on the hook for $535 million in federal loan guarantees. Obama’s opponents pummeled him over Solyndra’s collapse. The scandal opened a black hole into which Obama’s alternative energy policy has vanished.

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The energy efficiency bill is comically modest when compared to Germany’s broad initiative, but even this confection — a mix of building code changes and manufacturing incentives — is foundering in today’s Washington. The bill, sponsored by senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio, has been held up by Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, who seeks a vote on an amendment he attached that would eliminate health care subsidies for Congressional staffers.

It’s even more difficult to envision a U.S. energy initiative as comprehensive as Germany’s when the latest transformative measure of American society — the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare — is the subject of yet another defunding vote in the House and the target of senators, like Ted Cruz of Texas, who are willing to shut down the federal government to stop it.

Huge societal changes pose challenges. But determined societies meet them.

Germany is investing billions to retool its power infrastructure in preparation for the shift to wind, solar and other alternative energy sources. Like the U.S. lunar landing program in the 1960s, the German alternative energy buildup has the potential to advance science, create production efficiencies and spin off correlating products and industries, all of which may benefit consumers in decades to come. The German effort is made easier, perhaps, by the lack of domestic oil and coal industries and the political pressures that those industries might apply. But Germany’s government exerts far more control over industry than America’s, so it’s equally arguable that private-sector objections would hold little sway.

The bigger issue of Germany’s unified energy strategy and American’s lack of one is just that — the ability to think big and act big on big issues. That Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, would join her liberal opponents to back so extensive a measure floods her American counterparts in an unflattering light.

And in Germany that light will soon be green.


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This program aired on September 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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