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‘Energiewende,’ or energy transition, is the word on everyone’s lips in Germany as it tries to leave coal and fossil fuels behind. But behind all the slogans is real action – and important lessons for Canada

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The sun rises behind power lines in Frankfurt. Germany's 'Energiewende,' or 'energy transition,' has given new life to solar and other renewable power sources.Michael Probst/Associated Press

Chris Turner’s books include The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, and The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, which won last year’s National Business Book Award.

The first time I heard the term Energiewende was in the industrial heartland of Germany’s solar industry, south of Berlin, in the fall of 2008. This was around the peak of the country’s solar boom – a wave of frenetic industrial activity triggered by Germany’s ambitious renewable energy legislation, which almost singlehandedly rationalized the entire solar business and expanded it to global scale. It caused such feverish investment that the TecDAX index that tracks German technology stocks was being referred to at the time as the “solar DAX.”

I was interviewing a solar executive who was bringing me up to speed on it all, and he dropped the term into his explanation almost apologetically – the solar boom was part of a plan to eventually eliminate all fossil fuels from the German electricity grid, he said. “This Energiewende, we call it.” You could hear the ironic distance in his intonation. Maybe it was empty buzzspeak, this term. Maybe it would come to less than all that. Maybe it was some German quirk. It translates quite readily to English: “energy transition.” Why be so precious about it?

Ten years later, there is a logo of the kind that gets slapped up at the corners of slides projected onto giant presentation screens at international energy conferences. “Energiewende – Switch to the Future,” it reads, with a stylized German flag waving between the two halves of the compound word. The German Foreign Office hosts an annual conference of its own (the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue) on the global progress of the project. And it has come up with a kitschy tradition at such events involving an outsized lime-green sofa, on which an assortment of dignitaries (the foreign affairs minister, the former president of Ireland, the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency) sit for photos, attesting to the fact that they have joined Germany’s Energiewende. The sofa travels the world, from investment meeting to trade-show floor to conference hall.

The term isn’t going away. Neither is the transition.

“We now see a global energy transition,” says Falk Boemeke of the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. “And we are very happy to see that, because we are convinced that the energy transition is in fact the future.”

Canada’s place in that future remains a subject of much domestic political debate – and, too often, ferocious and counterproductive partisan squabbling. The pace of the global transition, though, will be set with or without Canada’s help, and so at least some of our time might be better spent keeping track of where the rest of the world is heading.

When German officials address the world in 2019, the Energiewende sloganeering is backed by hard data attesting to real progress.

Roughly 40 per cent of the capacity on Germany’s national grid now comes from renewable sources – up from less than 5 per cent at the transition’s launch – and more than 40 per cent of the facilities producing that clean power are owned by farmers and other private citizens, attesting to a genuinely national movement. Roughly 340,000 Germans work in the renewable-energy industry – more than five times as many as are employed by the once-mighty coal business, and rapidly approaching half the size of the work force in Germany’s vaunted automotive sector. Annual investment in renewables now counts in the tens of billions of euros in Germany.

And perhaps most impressively, the Energiewende boasts the support of more than 90 per cent of the German public – as near to unanimity as a modern democracy reaches on any topic. And German citizens underscored their support for green energy by handing the country’s Green Party the second largest share of votes in the European Parliament elections in May.

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German Green party co-leader Annalena Baerbock, middle, and top candidate Sven Giegold, right, celebrate in Berlin after exit polls are announced on May 26, European parliamentary election night.TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Energiewende traces its origins to a handful of fledgling green measures and local initiatives that emerged in the early 1990s. But the globe-beating version launched with the passage of the first Renewable Energy Sources Act in April, 2000, by the “Red-Green” coalition government of left-wing Social Democrats and the German Green Party. Angela Merkel was vocally opposed to the plan from the opposition bench – on the campaign trail toward her first term as Chancellor in 2005, she dismissed its goal of 20-per-cent renewable energy on the grid by 2020 as “unrealistic.” In power, however, she has earned the nickname “the Climate Chancellor” and become a mostly steady Energiewende backer and the de facto champion of broader European efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Several of these copied Germany’s legislation – the core of which is a “feed-in tariff” that obliges electricity-grid operators to purchase the renewable energy being fed into the grid at higher rates than those they pay for power generated from fossil fuels. From Sweden’s plan to be entirely carbon-neutral by 2045 to Scotland tripling its wind power capacity in 10 years, ambitious targets and eye-popping growth figures are now the European norm.

And it’s broadly acknowledged that even if the trail was not entirely blazed, nor the fastest pace set, by Germany, it was German policy-makers and engineers and their Energiewende that made the path significantly easier to navigate. Swedes and Norwegians might boast smaller and faster-shrinking carbon footprints, but neither country has the ability to apply international pressure or globalize an industry as the Germans have.

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Water vapour rises from the cooling towers of a lignite coal-fired power plant of Lausitz Energie Bergbau AG in Jaenschwalde, Germany.Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

There remains, however, a contrarian version of the Energiewende story. It’s one I’ve been hearing as long as I’ve been following the transition. I’ve lost count of how many times over the past decade or so someone has sidled up to me at a conference or after a panel to inform me of yet another reason Germany’s renewable-energy experiment was doomed to failure: The cost was becoming unbearable, the intermittency of wind and solar insurmountable, the grid on the verge of collapse, the Germans fleeing back to cheap, reliable coal.

Media coverage of the Energiewende has often echoed (and fed) these arguments – The Economist, for example, insisted back in 2012 that it was “hard to think of a messier and more wasteful way” to clean up a grid. More recent international stories, focused on the many complications and political challenges the transition has encountered, have featured such terms as “sputtering,” “stalled” and “floundering.”

There is, to be sure, a contrary set of details to back up the skeptics’ caution. German energy prices have doubled since 2000, the country will likely miss internal transition targets for 2020, and it is not yet on track to hit its commitments under the Paris agreement. Even two decades on, greenhouse-gas emissions from heating and transportation have barely begun to be addressed. And over all, Germany’s emissions have been basically flat since 2009.

Billions spent, then, to barely hold the needle steady. When Germans complain to the media, this is indeed the most common refrain – they agree that cutting emissions is worth the cost, but what if the money’s being spent the wrong way?

The reason progress on emissions ground to a halt after 2009, however, was not some intrinsic flaw with the Energiewende. Rather, it was a major external shock. The Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 put insurmountable pressure on the German government to accelerate the phaseout of its own substantial nuclear fleet. This obliged a greater reliance on coal-fired power, particularly from Germany’s ample supplies of lignite, an especially heavily polluting type of coal. Ms. Merkel has claimed a change of heart on the whole concept of nuclear power after Fukushima, but if so, that revelatory moment tidily coincided with the political imperative that she had to abandon nukes to save her electoral hide.

Germany, then, has had its broad commitment to progress on the climate and energy fronts stalled by its continued reliance on a stalwart domestic fossil-fuel industry – a dilemma that might resonate strongly for Canadians. Germans have lots of lignite, we have an abundance of bitumen, and nobody’s found an effortless path to a low-carbon economy.

The crucial difference, though, is one of resolve. If Germany hasn’t yet solved its carbon problems, it has no intention of quitting the fight, and there is no political constituency to be won by advocating for abandoning the Energiewende. German officials tend to say they have “homework to do” as they negotiate this tricky stage of the transition; they never speak of dropping out.

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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stands behind a symbolic last lump of coal extracted from an underground mine in Germany, after receiving it from miners of RAG, the nation's largest mining corporation, at the presidential palace in Berlin on April 3. Germany's last underground coal mine closed last year, but lignite from open-cast mines is still extracted.JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

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A young demonstrator holds a poster reading 'No coal, no nuclear power, green electricity only' during a 'Fridays for Future' protest in Berlin on May 24. Student strikes like this one, demanding urgent action on climate change, are renewing pressure on European governments to rethink their energy strategies.JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

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Across Germany, government and businesses are driving new measures to provide renewable power. Here in Duisburg, electric vehicles are charged at Germany's first solar-powered 210 kW/h park, supplied by Innogy SE.WOLFGANG RATTAY/Reuters

At the launch of Berlin Energy Week in April – a celebration of all things Energiewende, hosted by the German government (I was there on a media fellowship given to international journalists by Germany’s Foreign Office) – Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister and Energy Minister hosted a joint news conference, attesting to the view of the transition as a question not just of domestic power production but of international trade. My rusty old undergrad German wasn’t up to the task of following every twist in the discussion, but I hope the German ministers will permit me a loose paraphrase.

Their statements were mostly boilerplate, emphasizing the importance of fighting climate change, and the value to Germany and its trading partners in building a new emissions-free industrial base. There was time for only a single question. A German TV reporter wondered, given the ever-more-urgent scientific reports on the looming catastrophe of climate change, why the German government wasn’t doing more and moving faster. The answers from both ministers came in a gently defensive tone best understood as the Esperanto of high-level climate politics, each in turn attesting to all that Germany had done and planned to do and all the complex and varied challenges of it all.

The upshot, as ever in such discussions, was this: “Mein Gott, man, do you have any idea how hard it is to shift an industrial economy running at full speed from one energy regime to another? Forcefully, in a hurry, against the will of any number of established business and political power bases? With the cost immediate and significant, the risk still seen as distant on most horizons, and the rewards distributed unequally on a largely unknown timeline?”

In Germany’s case, the mighty auto industry has been notably effective in its foot-dragging. The coal business, though largely resigned to eventual obsolescence, argues tenaciously over timelines. Only this spring, nearly a decade after Fukushima re-established coal’s position as a necessary near-term evil, did Germany finally unveil a plan to shutter its 84 remaining coal-fired power plants – by 2038, a timeline seen as disappointingly unambitious by climate activists. And although fleet-footed clean-tech companies are racing to seize opportunities to couple green power and smart grids to electric vehicles and energy-storage facilities – and although you can find microcosmic versions of these systems in certain sleepy villages nestled across the German landscape – there are still daunting question marks hanging over the paths to zero-emissions transport and heating (not to mention smelting and manufacturing and the like).

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A technician works at the Badische Stahlwerke steel plant in Kehl, Germany, after the signing of a French-German project to convert furnaces at the plant into a heating source for housing.VINCENT KESSLER/Reuters

Then again, sorting those details out is no longer up to Germany alone – and, most likely, not even Germany in particular.

At an energy journalism conference running as part of Berlin Energy Week, Kingsmill Bond from the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), a London-based think tank, was asked a question about the potential impact of Brexit on global climate-change action. Mr. Bond promptly answered that Britain’s decision to leave or stay in the European Union would have no real impact either way, because the pace and direction of that action wasn’t being set in Britain or anywhere else in Europe. “The shift,” Mr. Bond said, “is being driven clearly by China.” Whether you are talking about renewable energy, electric vehicles, energy storage – “everything really,” Mr. Bond answered – the pace and direction of the transition is being set by Chinese policies and Chinese manufacturers. The solar-industry heartland south of Berlin where I’d first heard tell of the Energiewende, for example, is now focused mainly on the more theoretical work of next-generation research and development; the commercial-scale solar-panel manufacturing business has been lured to China by its government’s lavish subsidies.

Germany today may not have a carbon footprint as small or as quickly shrinking as some Scandinavian countries, but it remains the only major industrial economy with nearly a quarter century of steady commitment to shrinking its reliance on fossil fuels. And so, short of some sort of frictionless global coup that not only ushers in perfectly co-ordinated climate policies but somehow dodges the economic dislocation that causes German automakers and Canadian oil and gas interests and the like to slow the pace of progress, the German pace is as fast as an energy transition can go. If, as climate activists like to say, the science tells us we must decarbonize by 2030, the engineers and political scientists are just as clear that the transition couldn’t have moved much faster to date.

These are early days still, and there remains ample room in this global transition for Canadian leadership. Unlike Germany and a significant swath of the rest of the world, from China to sub-Saharan Africa, Canada is well on its way to abandoning coal forever, with remarkably little domestic strife. In the wake of Ontario’s coal phaseout, completed in 2014, Canada’s national grid (which we never think of as such) now draws more than 80 per cent of its power from sources free of greenhouse-gas emissions – a figure even Energiewende-boosting Germany can only look on with envy.

That grid could be the foundation of a national movement and a source of real pride. Already, companies such as Hydro-Québec pitch themselves to green-minded tech firms such as Apple and Google as the cleanest option in North America for a data centre. Imagine if this kind of development played as central a role as pipeline projects in our national energy debate. And imagine if Canada had as great a share of resolve to keep our energy transition moving as you find in Berlin.

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The sun sets behind the cooling towers of the Jaenschwalde coal-fired power plant.Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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