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Energy democracy (a book review)

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buchcover-mit-randOften, when I discuss energy matters in Germany, like their leadership in solar and wind power, people reply “ah well, yeah, but that’s Germany”.  As if that explained anything.  As if, somehow, it was something that was meant to happen in Germany, as opposed to, say, Canada.  As if, in a country that makes Mercedes cars, it was a planned, logical development that followed a smooth and easy path.

This was far from the case, as described in Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann’s new book, Energy Democracy.  It was fought all the way, and nothing was easy.

Take wind energy, for instance.  Engineer Erich Hau was present at the initial test of Growian, in 1983.  Growian was a large wind turbine pioneered by the big utility company RWE.  The winds on that blustery October day were strong, about 80 km/h.  Modern turbines can handle such winds, but it may not have been the best day to test a prototype.  Still, the signal was given to start, and the blades started spinning.  Too fast, uncontrollabley. The windmill’s generator had not been connected to an electric load, never mind to the grid.  With no load to push against, the turbine quickly became unstable.  The test was a failure.

Erich Hau was aghast at the results, so he did a bit of digging.  He found that the executives present had not come to test the turbine, but to sabotage it.  A leak revealed that one of them had previously said “We need Growian to prove that wind power won’t work.”  RWE, a large utility heavily invested in coal and nuclear energy, did not want wind.

Travel in northern Germany now and wind turbines are everywhere.  What happened between now and 1983 was an epic fight, mostly fought by communities trying to regain control of their electricty against the big private utilities.  The fight that started mostly as a fight against nuclear energy turned into a fight for community energy: cooperatives pooling the assets of local citizens and investing in wind, solar, or biomass energy.  Fighting for access to the grid while retaining control of their assets and their production.  That control was key.  If there were never any local protests against windpower in Germany, it is because it was the locals who had decided, as a group, to set up wind power themselves.

It has to be emphasized that this was happening during the very conservative times of Helmut Kohl,  who could have repeated Maggie Tatcher’s aphorism that “there is no such thing as society”; this epoch is remembered as reformstau, a time when every reform initiative was stalled.  But events took care of disproving this: society did react to the Chernobyl crisis.  People wanted to control, and produce, the energy they used. Even captains of industry like Alfred Ritter started helping community energy groups and nascent solar energy firms. (Ritter, a chocolate bar manufacturer, could no longer source hazelnuts for his chocolates – they were radioactive.  The realization that everything is linked to everything dawned upon him as it did on the rest of German society.)

The book is an excellent historical of how Germany went from there to now, detailing the traps that the big energy boys set for the community cooperatives, only to be hoisted by their own petards or be defeated in court.  So it’s full of hope for those here who think things can never change.

But the book is also an interesting comparative study of American and German cultures when it comes to politics and economics.  The authors show how Adam Smith has been misinterpreted as advocating greed and laissez-faire (he didn’t; he advocated for government ensuring fair rules).  They also point out that there are no German words for gerrymandering, or voter supression, or that Lügenpresse (lying media) has been declared the “non-word” of the year in 2014.  Public institutions work better and are more trusted by the German public, it seems.

The authors also mention that a situation whereby small coal-producing states have disproportionate power in the US Senate could not occur in Germany.  Germany, at the federal level, elects its politicians using the mixed-member proportional system.  In Canada, if we were to adopt such a system, it would mean that half of the elected MPs are there because they got the most votes in their ridings, but the other half are there in proportion to how many votes their party got.  So no vote is ever wasted, which promotes public participation and reduces cynicism.

This voting system also usually produces what we would call minority governments; if the Energiewende went through, it’s because the governing party adopted a policy proposed by the Greens.  As a result, Germany became a leader in wind and solar co-operatives, and a major exporter of energy technologies.  What, a proposal meant to protect the environment was good for business?  You bet.

That’s why it would be good if we could all convince Mr Trudeau to stick to his promise and reform the electoral process…

Morris, Craig & Arne Jungjohann 2016.  Energy democracy: Germany’s energiewende to renewables. Palgrave Macmillan.  Also check Craig Morris’ Energy Transition website.


Written by enviropaul

February 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm

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