KITCHENER — Germany doesn’t get much sunshine. Its coastlines are not huge.
Yet in the course of a decade, that country managed to become a global production centre for solar and off-shore wind energy and created more than 300,000 renewable energy jobs in the process.
Chris Turner, author of The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, says if Canada wants a sustainable economy, Germany is the model to look at.
“What we are actually seeing right now is the failure of a growth economy that’s built on fossil fuels,” Turner said in an interview prior to giving a talk at a Sustainable Waterloo Region event in Kitchener on Tuesday night. The event was held in partnership with the German Consulate, Canada’s Technology Triangle and WalterFedy.
“In dealing with the economic sector in turmoil, the increasing competition for increasingly scarce natural resources and of course the climate problem, which is the trump card in the deck, the only thing that aims at all three problems and cracks all three is to have new investments in sustainability and green energy technology,” Turner said.
Turner described the German “leap” into this sector through its “deceptively simple” feed-in-tariff program, by which people could generate green power and sell it into the electricity grid at rates higher than the going rate for electricity. “The genius of it was that it was really very simple,” Turner said. “All they did was to change the way that energy was priced.”
Germany boosted its share of green energy on its grid from 6.3 per cent in 2000 to over 20 per cent now. “Not only did the Germans put a lot of green energy on the grid, but they became world leaders in making solar panels, wind turbines, high efficiency windows and things like that,” he said.
Turner credits the vision of the late Hermann Scheer, a Social Democrat and environmentalist who saw, early on, that climate change was going to be “the defining issue for generations to come.”
Of course, the program has its critics. Germany recently reduced what it pays for solar energy. Critics say that makes solar industries vulnerable. Also, the industry is now being hit by the fact that China is bringing extremely low-cost solar modules onto the market.
Arise Technologies, a debt-laden solar company headquartered in Waterloo, recently announced that it was shutting down its solar-cell manufacturing plant in Germany.
But Turner said Germany is still investing heavily in a green energy future. “They did reduce the solar rate, but they have massively increased the investment in offshore wind, which they see as a big replacement for nuclear power.”
As with any new industry, “there is a lot of volatility in small companies starting up and some fail and some succeed,” he said. “But as an industry, it is absolutely thriving.”
Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program somewhat follows the German example and has also faced a lot of criticism. But Turner sees the problem in Ontario as being in the implementation rather than the concept.
“The solar developers talk about the fact that people want it and the industry has ramped up to serve it, but you wait indefinitely for your application to be approved and to actually connect to the grid,” Turner said.
Turner said even before the feed-in regulations, Germany had a “100,000 Roof” program that provided loans for people wanting to install solar roofs. That didn’t add a lot of energy into the grid, but as thousands of Germans got involved, “it was very effective as a social change agent.”
Turner says “the power of decentralized energy production” is the way forward in the new economy.
“The power of decentralized energy production has often been compared to the way that the internet has changed the way we think about telecommunications. It has gone from a one-way service to the omni-directional web we now exist in. That’s where you start to see the opportunities,” Turner said
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