What Kentucky Can Learn from Germany's Energy Transition

"From Bundestag to Bluegrass" is a five-part web and radio series examining Germany’s energy transition—and its potential lessons for Kentucky—reported by Erica Peterson for WFPL News in Louisville.

Like other Appalachian states, Kentucky’s coal and utility industry is in a period of transition. Environmental regulations, declining reserves and market conditions are making coal more expensive to mine and burn. Over the past six years, the number of coal miners in the eastern part of the state has been cut in half. Several of Kentucky’s large, aging coal-fired power plants have announced their plans to retire or switch to natural gas.

Across an ocean, in Germany, is a coal-producing country also undergoing a transition. But this one is voluntary — buoyed by policies that support renewable energy and planned phase-outs of the country’s nuclear plants and coal mines. So far, Germany is on track to meet aggressive renewable energy goals, but is having a hard time moving entirely away from fossil fuels.

While Kentucky isn’t yet embracing the inevitable economic and energy transition caused by the coal industry’s decline, the German Energiewende may offer some ideas for the state’s future. I spent a week in the country earlier this fall to figure out what practical advice Germany could offer Kentucky as it begins a transition of its own.

Part I. In Germany, A City Moves Away From Coal

Just as Kentucky’s coal mining communities are beginning to look forward to diversifying their economies away from fossil fuels, in the 1990s Gelsenkirchen officials decided to reinvent the city as a solar energy center.

Part II. Germans Forge 'Socially Acceptable' Transition From Coal

Like the United States, Germany is a coal-mining country. But now, Germany has embarked on the Energiewende, or “energy transition.” And part of that includes a shift away from coal and other fossil fuels, which still provide a large share of the country’s electricity.

Part III. Germany's Renewable Energy Push Doesn't Mean Forsaking Coal — Yet

Like in Kentucky, manufacturers in Hamburg need to know that they’ll have a large and constant supply of affordable electricity. And two very different power plants in Hamburg show the tension in Germany’s energy market.

Part IV. How Energy Tourism is Powering New Futures for German Cities

In Kentucky, the economic decline of the coalfields has led some to speculate that tourism could be Eastern Kentucky’s second act. That’s partially what happened here, in the industrial Ruhr Valley, beginning back in the 1990s.

Part V. Key to Germany's Energy Transition: Personal Choices

Energy efficiency saves money and reduces pollution. While the country’s per capita energy use is in no way the smallest in Europe, on average, Germans use about half the energy Americans do.

Conclusion: Four Things Kentucky Could Learn From Germany's Energy Transition

Here’s what I took away from my time in Germany, and what Kentucky could draw from Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels:

  1. Reinvention takes time and involves failure. It’s been more than 20 years since Germany began instituting the policies that are behind the Energiewende, or energy transition, and some of them are just beginning to show real momentum. The plan sets out long-term goals that the country won’t reach until 2050 or later. That requires patience. And Germany’s former coal mining areas are working on their own kinds of reinvention in concert with the Energiwende. But it’s been difficult for many places, like in Gelsenkirchen. The city should be commended for its tenacity; it tried to transition from coal to solar energy, and failed. Now, it’s trying again — this time as a center for research of all renewable energies.

  2. There’s a cost. You know that old adage “it takes money to make money”? It is definitely true in this case. Reimagining an entire country’s energy grid is unbelievably expensive, and it has raised Germans’ electricity prices. But so far, the country hasn’t seen a mass exodus of manufacturers to places with cheaper electricity — a common argument of the coal industry. It also takes money to turn a region’s economy around. Zollverein — the impressive monument to the Ruhr Valley’s coal mining past — has cost about $320 million so far, spread out over 25 years. Now, according to a spokeswoman, Zollverein turns a profit. But that return on investment took a long time to realize.

  3. Preserve heritage. Even when reinventing a coal mining area and trying to move away from fossil fuels, it’s important not to forget the past. Just like in Kentucky, people living in Germany’s Ruhr Valley are proud of their industrial heritage and of the coal they mined that powered the country’s economy. They don’t want to forget their history and culture, but at the same time they realize the need for cleaner sources of energy. Some of the region’s landmarks — like Zollverein — pay tribute to the past while embracing the future.

  4. Personal buy-in is necessary. No matter how effective they are, government policies will only get you so far. The Energiewende has reached some short-term goals because people have bought into the concept, invested in renewable energy and taken steps to curtail energy consumption. I didn’t address this issue directly while I was in Germany, but I expect that’s due to economics more than altruism. Installing solar panels is a good investment for many in Germany, because of the generous feed-in tariff. Likewise, with high electricity prices, saving money also makes economic sense.

Above all, I came away believing there are aspects of Germany’s energy transition — and how coal-producing areas are adapting — that could be modified to work in Kentucky.

Coal is going to be mined and burned in the commonwealth for a long time. But coal will likely never play as big of a role in the state’s economy and electricity portfolio as it did in the past. The downturn in the coal industry has happened faster than many expected, but it’s not too late for Kentucky to make adjustments.

Germany doesn’t have all the answers. But that country’s experience should be instructive for Kentuckians wondering about the commonwealth’s second act.