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Germany Takes “Power to the People” Literally

RP Siegel | Friday January 13th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Back in the 1960s there was a social uprising in this country. It grew out of the civil rights movement and the protests of the Vietnam War. It was powered largely by young people and other groups who felt alienated by a consolidating centralized power structure of business and government whose interests seemed largely out of sync with their own.

The “movement” deeply influenced the culture of the time, as reflected in books, movies and perhaps most of all in popular music. John Lennon’s 1971 song Power to the People, epitomized the movement’s political edge with its reference to revolution, admonishing listeners to “get on your feet and out on the street.”

That revolution apparently fizzled out, or at least went underground, though there seem to be increasingly numerous signs that some seeds from that time might be starting to sprout today, after a long period of dormancy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement clearly springs to mind as the most obvious example, which has received lots of attention. Certainly the advent of the internet and decentralized renewable energy have provided the kind of tools that may well have sustained its predecessor past the point where it went quiet.

But while this movement, as well as Lennon’s song focused on political and social power, there is a transformation happening around the distribution of physical, electrical power, in a way that is not at all unrelated. Jeremy Rifkin argues in his book The Third Industrial Revolution, that a radical “democratization of energy” is about to take place. The book prescribes, among other things, turning every building in to a power plant through the use of wind or solar on the roof. Sounds like “Power to the People” to me.

The first evidence of this new order must surely be in Germany, where a decentralized energy model has been powerfully embraced by government leaders, with the result being that more than 50 percent of Germany’s 50 GW of renewable power is already being produced, not by utilities, but by private individuals and farms. That represents an investment of roughly $100 billion coming from these stromrebellen, or electricity rebels as they are known.

To be more specific, 50 percent of Germany’s solar PV, some17 GW, (as compared to 3.6 GW in the US) is produced by this sector, as is 54 percent of wind power. All told, Germany now produces over 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

That is a goal that the US, which is currently at 8 percent, hopes to reach by 2020.

Solar PV grew by 76 percent last year, despite the fact that Germany receives about the same amount of annual sunlight as Alaska.

The mechanism behind this impressive growth is the feed-in tariff, a government subsidy that pays above-market rates for electricity generated from renewable sources. Clearly, the government understands the collateral benefits, tangible and otherwise and has a sense of what they are worth. Now that the tariffs have been so effective, the government is beginning the process of gradually reducing them, by 15 percent this year, as well they should in the name of fiscal responsibility in the midst of a looming European debt crisis.

Now the latest trend over there is “Citizen Power,” where community groups band together to take ownership of their power generation at the community level. An international conference on the subject will be held in Bonn in July.

Other governments following suit include that of Ontario, Canada who introduced their own feed-in tariff in 2009 with terms that specifically encouraged community and aboriginal ownership of renewables.

Clearly, the spirit of “Power to the People,” is still alive and well, though perhaps in a form that has evolved to suit these 21st Century times.

[Image credit: skithund: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

 


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