Writing About the Energiewende

Writing About the Energiewende

Peter Hennicke, Paul J.J. Welfens, Energiewende nach Fukushima: Deutscher Sonderweg oder weltweites Vorbild? Oekom, 2012, p. 274.

Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It. By Osha Gray Davidson

Kampf um Strom: Mythen, Macht und Monopol. By Claudia Kemfert (Murmann)

Stromwechsel: Wie Bürger und Konzerne um die Energiewende kämpfen. By Hannes Koch, Bernhard Pötter, and Peter Unfried



Writing about Germany’s clean energy transition is notoriously difficult – for a number of reasons. And writing about it in book form is probably the hardest of all.

Why? For one, it’s moving so fast that just about any book penned on the topic is out-of-date by the time it hits the market – or shortly thereafter.  Within just the past year, for example, the German public’s perception of the energy transition has shifted dramatically: the Energiewende has gone from pride of the nation to bogeyman. Moreover, the feed-in-tariff is under attack; the EU’s climate protection cornerstone, the ETS, shriveled up and died; electric mobility and offshore wind are going nowhere fast; and much of the EU, led by the Central Europeans, have registered loud protest against Germany’s project.  On the plus side, in the course of the past 12 months Germany has broken one clean energy record after another while posting all-time high export numbers, evidence that Germany can prosper with renewables at the forefront – and that the Energiewende from below will go on whether the federal government paves the way or not.  

Another scourge of Energiewende books is the same that plagues almost all energy-related journalism, including that in dailies, weeklies, blogs, documentary films, and even YouTube clips. They are all fundamentally challenged by getting across sometimes extremely complex phenomena to lay audiences. The Energiewende is a field that spans geography and geology, micro and macroeconomics, politics and policy, as well as physics and postwar history. Those writers self-confident enough to step onto this treacherous terrain inevitably face the dilemma of making the story accessible to the educated, interested non-expert.

As it happens, it’s not long into an energy-related article, say on renewably generated electricity, when measures like kilowatts (kW), megawatts (MW), gigawatts (GW) begin to crop up. These are units of power, not energy, the latter which is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh), megawatt hours (MWh), u.s.w.  Major energy production or consumption is usually expressed in terawatt hours (TWh).  Also keep in mind that electrical watts (We) are measured differently than thermal watts (Wt). Moreover, carbon emissions are measured in tons CO2e per year or per household or per country. Quantities of natural gas are measured in normal cubic meters (Europe) or in standard cubic feet (North America).  While in the US natural gas is sold in “therms,” in the rest of the world natural gas is sold in “gigajoules.” And this is just the beginning.

But how many people know what a kilowatt hour is, much less a terawatt? Or how much 35,902 megawatts of electricity is? This is the volume Germany’s photovoltaic and wind facilities generated on April 19, 2013, an all-time record covered by many news service and other media.  Many of these media simplified the matter by noting that 35,902 megawatts is about the output of 26 nuclear power plants. This kind of ballpark dumbing down works now and then, but only in very short bursts of journalism and for the bigger numbers. The deeper you go into the topic, the more a small dictionary full of techie terminology becomes essential to getting the story right.

The same goes for the economics of energy. An all-out Energiewende in Germany is unthinkable with the current power market, which was created for conventional, centralized energy suppliers in a monopolized industry, not a liberalized sector packed with renewables.  The booming of intermittent power sources like PV and onshore wind, and their ever greater proportion in the overall energy mix, have wreaked havoc on the market creating paradoxes that – until a new market is designed and implemented – leads to the burning of brown coal and the bankruptcy of natural gas works.

This is the discussion of capacity markets, marginal costs, and demand-side management. It is crucial to understand Germany’s energy situation at the moment, but requires significant time and background knowledge to comprehend. After having it explained to me for the fourth time, I asked my German energy expert interlocutor how many German journalists understand the fine points of this key dynamic. Five or six, he said.

This complexity has several implications. For one, it makes a lot of Energiewende writing either very dry or incomprehensible, or both. The practitioners in the field, men (almost exclusively) with mechanical engineering or other advanced science degrees, fill papers and pages with text intelligible only to fellow experts.

The other side of the coin is journalists who are not specialists in the field; they stay very close to the surface – both because this is what they understand and because this is what most readers can understand. This obviously has he disadvantage of being shallow, on the one hand, and many times it contains errors, on the other. It is astonishing how many mistakes creep into the energy stories of otherwise hardworking, competent journalists. But it’s not entirely their fault: One needs more than a couple of days or even weeks to come to grips with the complexities of feed-tariffs, energy markets, EU regulations on bioenergy, carbon trading mechanisms, quota systems, and the like.

So, can anybody find a middle ground between boring readers to tears with tech jargon and being so superficial that one only scratches the surface?  Well, maybe some.

In her new book Kampf um Strom, Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at a renowned German think tank, examines the myths, lies, and propaganda that opponents of the Energiewende have unleashed to block the energy transition. Since her book is on the discourse around the Energiewende, it avoids the usual pitfalls of experts getting too nitty gritty with technical details. And in the book she also sheds light on another reason why the Energiewende is so hard to write about: because of the opaque, vested interests everywhere in the energy discourse.

Kemfert argues that a loose coalition of neo-liberal politicos, conventional energy companies, and energy-intensive industries are pulling out the stops to discredit the Energiewende. Their bending and twisting of the truth has been hugely successful in the course of two years, she writes, turning a population that had been understandably frightened of nuclear power to one wrongly frightened of the Energiewende itself.  The battery of pseudo-arguments include stoking fears about run-away costs, the danger of blackouts, the unreliability of PV and wind power, the undermining of German industry, the complexity of connecting new transmission grids, and other red herrings. Kemfert debunks them one after another, and traces their source back to the mighty fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies, who are fighting a rear-guard battle – and this very effectively, Kemfert argues, as they’ve manage to stop this government’s progress on progressive energy policies in its tracks.

Kemfert doesn’t criticize journalists for buying into these half-truths and myths -- although perhaps she should. Journalists get too much wrong, too much of the time (and the further away they are from Germany, the more they get wrong). As complicated as it all is, journalists and their editors have a responsibility to do better than they have so far. If this means dedicating one or more writers or an entire desk to energy issues, then so be it. 

 The single, English-language book on the Energiewende, the e-book Clean Break The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It by Osha Gray Davidson, avoids most of the pitfalls, not least because Davidson is a fine writer as well as a specialist on environmental topics, which he has written about for years in the United States. Indeed Gray Davidson’s slim work (about a three-hour read) skates over technical details while offering an impressive overview of the Energiewende for the non-German layman. His envisaged readership is Americans and he elegantly uses places to tell the story – like Hamburg’s Hafenstadt and the Reichstag in Berlin – as well as people like the Green MP Hans-Josef Fell and the Black Forest’s Michael and Ursula Sladek of the now legendary EWS Schönau renewable energy co-op. 

Moreover, he explicitly ties the German experience to the US context, making it directly relevant to Americans who otherwise might not immediately grasp what German energy policies have to do with them. In Clean Break, for example, German clean-energy pioneers tell Gray Davidson that it was the Carter administration’s alternative policies in the late 1970s that originally inspired them to strike out on their own. In other places, Gray Davidson makes helpful observations like the following:

Solar panels cost the same in Germany as they do in the United States, but a German homeowner pays $10,000 to install a typical rooftop system while a U.S. homeowner pays $20,000 for the same system. The difference is entirely due to the German focus on reducing the cost of deployment. Permitting fees that can run into the thousands of dollars in the United States cost nothing, or close to it, in Germany.

Yet Clean Break falls short in that Gray Davidson’s upbeat tone echoes that of time period between roughly spring 2011 and spring 2012, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, when Merkel committed the country to the Energiewende full-speed ahead, or so many thought. Today this optimism has been extinguished by the pessimism of the nay-sayers, as Claudia Kemfert points out. Moreover, avoiding the technical nuts-and-bolts of energy policy means keeping it very basic; anything longer than Gray Davidson’s extended essay would have to tackle issues like capacity markets, the pros and cons of bioenergy, the role of the EU, and the prospects of Germany’s epic offshore wind power plans, among others. If he had tried to do this, his book would look much different.

Then there’s Energie nach Fukushima (Energy After Fukushima) by German experts Peter Hennicke, president of the renowned Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy, and Paul J. J. Welfens, an acclaimed economist. It’s an impressive overview of the Energiewende. But it’s written in such a dry, wonky style that no non-expert will make it though the 283 pages. Also, even though just a year on the shelves, it is already in need of an update. Nevertheless, it makes many good points, one being that renewables would have already long had parity on the market if fossil fuels and nuclear power weren’t subsidized to the hilt as they have been for decades.

Finally, Stromwechsel (Energy Shift) by the journalist trio Hannes Koch, Berhard Pötter, and Peter Unfried of the left-leaning daily taz offers an intriguing insight not only into the Energiewende but how it arrived in Germany over a span of thirty years. This however is something most Germans older than 25 already know; it is the rest of the world that has to be convinced that the Energiewende was not the result of Merkel freaking out over Fukushima. Moreover, the authors delve into the far-reaching structural changes that energy decentralization has already wrought on Germany – and will continue to as the Energiewende progresses.

Some of the excellent points that both Energie nach Fukushima and Stromwechsel make are particularly important considering the backlash that sets the tone of the debate today. They are exactly those more complex issues that Gray Davidson understandably chose to omit from his much shorter work. Yet somehow they have to be made to a non-German public, particularly to the citizens of Germany’s neighbor states, like France, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, where the Germans are thought to have panicked, and now are on a one-way path to self-destruction. In these countries and most others, there is not an open discussion about energy policy.  

Even though most readers don’t know the different between a GWe and a gigajoule, the discourse over energy in Germany happens at a very high level of sophistication, higher than anywhere else in the world. These new books reflect that, despite the inherent obstacles that they and their peers face in taking on the challenge of writing about the Energiewende.