The Germans have the green idea

By By David Servatius

By David Servatius

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

As we ponder solutions in this country to the climate change crisis and realize just how fundamentally everyone is going to have to alter the way they live, solving the problem can seem like that proverbial thousand-mile journey. If only we could summon the collective will to take the first step, or simply agree on what it should be. But we can’t, so we do nothing.

Americans may be paralyzed on the issue, but in the rest of the world, people are mobilized and taking first steps. The Germans have recently taken an inspirational one. They have done something that we should learn from and try to replicate. Seven years ago, the federal government in that country began paying cash incentives to any resident willing to install solar power panels and sell the electricity generated to the national power grid, no matter how small the amount.

Participants are paid about fifty cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity that they put into the system and it costs about twenty cents per kilowatt-hour to buy power back. The government has set up price guarantees that make it easy to get bank loans for the initial investment in solar panels, and because prices are fixed for the next 20 years, panel owners easily recoup their costs.

The result has been phenomenal. Within just a few years, thousands of solar panels producing millions of watts of electricity have sprung up in fields, on rooftops and along mile after mile of the autobahn. Within the next two decades, Germany’s solar energy sources are expected to produce one-third of the country’s electricity.

German farmer Heinrich Gartner is one participant in the program. He has spent his whole life raising cash crops and pigs on his family farm. Three years ago, he added solar panels to his land and now earns an extra $60,000 a year for doing basically nothing.

“I am still a farmer,” he said. “I’m still breeding pigs. But the hunger for electricity is even bigger than for food at the moment. We can produce, here, really green power. There’s no atomic waste or carbon dioxide emission. We want to show that it is possible to make electricity that doesn’t do a lot of bad things.”

Studies show that the government’s renewable program has added an additional 15 to 20 dollars per month to the average German’s electricity bill. But, so far, there’s been little public outcry.

“The prices are a little higher than the average of other countries, but people know (that) with these additional costs they contribute directly to a clean future for all,” said Hermann Scheer, program creator and former parliament member. “Therefore, 80 percent of the people accept that.”

When the program began, opponents predicted that it would destroy the German economy. Sound familiar? But the reverse has happened. The country’s economy is booming and now boasts a thriving solar industry that has become a favorite of investors all over the world.

One plant now produces almost a million solar cells a week. In just a few years, Germany has become the world leader in solar cell production and has created 170,000 new jobs in the industry. Mass production is rapidly dropping the retail price of the panels.

This is something that American capitalists should love. It appeals to greed. If we could replicate it here, we could finally start to break the stranglehold that the oil and coal industries have on us. So why can’t we? The German program faced all of the cries of gloom and doom that we hear in the United States every time something like this is suggested, and it still succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Remind me. Do we hate the Germans right now, so therefore all of their ideas are worthless? Or is it just the French? I don’t know. I do know that we should be mature enough to recognize a great idea when we see it, even if it is (gasp!) European, and use it.

It’s a step.

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