Photo: Germany shows that renewable is doable

Germany gets about 20 per cent of its overall annual electricity from renewable sources, including solar, wind, water, and thermal, and aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.
(Credit: Reck Dickhard via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

Germany recently reached a renewable energy milestone. On Saturday, May 26, the country met half its midday energy needs with solar power. On the preceding workday Friday, it met a third with solar. According to German renewable energy expert Norbert Allnoch, during those midday periods, the country's solar plants produced 22 gigawatts of electricity, as much as 20 nuclear power stations running at full capacity.

Granted, those were sunny days, but Germany gets about 20 per cent of its overall annual electricity from renewable sources, including solar, wind, water, and thermal. A Reuters article reports that "Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four per cent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020."

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In a controversial move, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also promised to replace nuclear power with renewables. The plan is proceeding, but it hasn't been without setbacks. Transforming the country's energy system means spending a lot on infrastructure to produce and distribute power, and dealing with the inevitable red tape to approve and install power lines.

Although there is some opposition to the increasing number of wind and solar installations and power lines, most Germans support the plan. No energy technology is completely benign, so care must be taken to ensure that environmental, or any, negative impacts of wind or other renewable energy installations are minimized.

Besides concerns about noise, health effects, blocked views, and harm to bats and birds — most of which are overstated or can be largely overcome — issues around renewable power's viability have also been raised. One argument is that because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, renewable energy is too intermittent and difficult to integrate into a system that relies on baseload (power that always runs), most of which comes from fossil fuel or nuclear plants. But this is more an engineering problem than a renewable energy issue. Surely if we can split atoms for energy we can find a way to deal with cloudy skies.

In Canada, the federal and Alberta governments are pinning much of their greenhouse gas emissions reduction plans on carbon capture and storage, an expensive and unproven engineering challenge, and a way to justify continued use of polluting and diminishing fossil fuel supplies rather than switching to greener sources.

New and existing technologies may allow us to use renewables for baseload power, although some experts argue that we don't need baseload at all. The website Skeptical Science notes that if it is required, technologies and sources such as concentrated solar thermal, enhanced geothermal, wind compressed air energy storage, and pumped heat energy storage can all play a role.

But with conservation and improved efficiency, along with better storage and smart grid management, we could switch to renewables without the need for large-scale baseload. Australian wind power researcher Mark Diesendorf goes as far as to argue that the main obstacle to renewable power development is the "operational inflexibility of base-load power stations". He says the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors, as well as industries that depend on them, like aluminum and cement manufacturers, promote the "baseload fallacy".

As writer David Roberts points out in an article on, Germany has decided that baseload and renewable energy technologies aren't compatible. Conventional power grids use baseload, medium load, and peak load sources, but Roberts writes that "if you have enough renewables, they completely take over the space once occupied by baseload." To supply the demand, or residual load, that renewables can't cover, you need flexible and responsive options. And that will come from "a combination of demand-side measures (conservation, efficiency, and 'peak shaving' through demand response), energy storage, a much smarter grid, and dispatchable power sources."

In the short term, Germany will use natural gas and imports as its "dispatchable" power source, but with emerging storage technologies, including converting renewable energy to synthetic natural gas or biogas, Germany could stop using all fossil fuels in its power sector.

Renewable energy solutions exist. We just need governments with as much foresight as Germany's to implement them.

For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and onlin

June 7, 2012

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Jul 04, 2012
9:06 PM

I just wrote a rather negative post on Australia so I have to write a positive one on a tiny country or rather large island called Cuba which I visited in 2008. Did you know when I went there were 94 National Parks and 6 Biospheres? 4 of the latter are open to the public 2 are kept for scientists. In 1959 Cuba was down to 11% of natural land mass and in 2008 it was up to 27 1/2%. Not bad eh? I learnt this from a ex-teacher now guide at the bio-spere open to Eco Tourism at Las Terraces. Here thet offer hiking etc. there are enviro friendly hotels and restaurants, one vegetarian, that's pretty good for Latin America. One knew the chickens, pigs etc. were free range because one saw them digging around in the natural environment I was there a few days after not one but two cyclones hit and devastated the island — Gustav and Ike. 92,000 homes were damaged, more than 40,000 destroyed, yet they only lost 7 people. 2 very elderly refused to leave their home, two were killed when a power line fell and 3 more, all the rest were taken to safety by the army. I was in Baracoa 20 days after a tidal wave had removed a 500 year metre thick wall. The restaurant where we were supposed to eat was gone. Instead the prisoners with no guards were making cement bricks and when they dried in the sun they were picked up by the people whose homes were lost. They were already rebuilding fast. all goods supplied by the government. Because of the wild weather the cities including Havana have turned all the spare land outside the cities and are growing their own vegies etc. so they don't have to rely on all their food coming in from the countryside. Here is an island suffering from 60 years of sanctions forced on them by Big Brother and yet they can still offer a free health and dental service, free education from primary to university, it's even free to be born and to die!!!!! They train doctors and engineers from overseas for free providing they go back to their own country to practise. I learnt so much by asking questions. No one earns much but they are encouraged to become educated and support their country. I did feel sad for some of the street dogs that needed veterinary care but I saw worse in Chile and Argentina and they could do something better. All I can say is that to me Cuba has then answers to our planet. They have community and 98% literacy, one of the highest in the world.

Jul 04, 2012
7:54 PM

I loved your series on the 'nature of things'. And I have some of your books. Yes it is do depressing what is going on on our magical and once perfect planet. I am an animal as I can't call myself vegetable or mineral! But just like you my friends are quite shocked when I explain the meaning of being animal. I don't know how people are being educated these days. A primary teacher had no idea that caterpillars turned into butterflies! There are so few butterflies these days and I hardly see a ladybird/beetle in my garden these days. Three years ago we had lots of spiders now due to chemical spraying for mosquitos there are fewer and fewer. No insects, no birds. The mining companies in Australia are putting millions into advertising, our environment is wrecked. I hate travelling now in our motorhome seeing mile wide fields of wheat etc. with not one tree, huge open mine pits, cattle bred in virtual desert, kangaroo bodies shot and piled up beside highways, this is Australia today. Cruel, stupid and very very short sighted.

Jun 10, 2012
12:24 PM

With the recent oil spill in AB, and comments from the premier stating that this is part of economic growth, what does the voting public expect??? When water, air, and soil is contaminated in our own backyard than we finally speak up. Unfortunately, the damage is done. I am a believer in God, but I am confused by the lack of environmental stewardship of a province that claims to be so conservative and faith based. The First Nations people have more respect for God and all living creatures than most. And, the europeans, more liberal than North Americans, are out thinking us in terms of its longterm renewable energy plan. My point: the current PC party under Harper is not representative of my beliefs despite their attempts to claim the title "conservative." The political agenda of the PC party is more like a "con" than a serve. Let's not be fooled by labels. Canada is a nation of conservationists— and, Germany is an excellent example of how we can do better to conserve and protect our precious resources.

Jun 08, 2012
7:20 AM

Energy storage is the key and largely missing ingredient. This is where research efforts should be focused. In Canada one cannot help but notice that we have an excess of heat and light around us most of the time, while in winter we need a large injection of generated energy to meet our needs.

If we could just bottle enough of that summer warmth, and make a few changes to the systems and structure of our homes, most homeowners would not need: oil, gas, a grid, or large scale projects to produce energy for them.

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