In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in a generation, Germany doubled down on a decade of success, pledging to eliminate nukes by 2022 and switch almost exclusively to renewable power by 2050. A report from the front lines.

CHRIS TURNER, Mother Nature Network

NUCLEAR-FREE SUBDIVISION: In Freiburg, birthplace of the German anti-nuclear movement, new townhomes use solar power to produce more energy than they use. (Photo: Ashley Bristowe/Flickr)


Even before the full scale of the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima was known, energy regulators and nuclear industry reps around the world scrambled to reassure the masses in their jurisdictions that there was nothing to fear from their nuclear plants. Within 72 hours of the tsunami wave’s catastrophic landfall at Fukushima, for example, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commision here in my home and native land put out this statement: “The CNSC would like to reassure Canadians that nuclear power plants located in Canada are among the most robust designs in the world and have redundant safety systems to prevent damage in the case of an earthquake.”

American nuclear officials issued similar pronouncements about the earthquake readiness (or lack of proximity to fault lines) of their reactors. So long as nuclear catastrophe arrives in exactly the same form it did in Fukushima, we are purportedly in good hands.

The notable, strident exception to this general rule of nothing-to-see-here dismissal was Germany, home to 17 nuclear power stations providing almost a quarter of the electricity for the world biggest export economy and a prosperous populace of more than 80 million. Watching the disaster unfold in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative and former proponent of nuclear power, reportedly told an aide, “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”

The German government almost immediately ordered an emergency shutdown of its seven oldest nuclear plants, and within weeks Merkel announced a plan to eliminate nuclear energy from the German grid entirely by 2022. “We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible,” she declared.

In its response to Fukushima, Germany was a case study in the benefits of building resilience into a system. In Canada, in the U.S., even in Japan itself, policymakers had to defend the old system and its radioactive components, because their energy regimes were nowhere near ready to transition to anything else. But in Germany, after 10 years of innovative green-powered growth under the most ambitious renewable energy policy on the planet, there were legitimate alternatives close at hand. There was more than one option. And Germany has chosen to go with the one where growth is robust, costs are dropping and technology advancing rapidly — and where no natural phenomenon of any magnitude or unforeseen complexity could possibly lead to a disaster measured in thousands of years.

You’ll hear, in essence, that Germany can’t do what it claims to be doing, which is to supplant the conventional energy system almost entirely with one powered by renewables and enabled by radical efficiency gains by midcentury or so. (Current German targets aim to have half its grid converted to renewable energy by 2030 and 80 percent of it green by 2050.)

So yes: you’ll hear scoffing, skepticism, glib dismissal. You’ll hear remarkably little about the fine-grained facts of Germany’s cleantech industry, its energy legislation, its urban landscape and architecture and industrial design. Unless you’ve been paying close attention, you won’t hear the phrase most often evoked by the architect of Germany’s green economy — the late, great Hermann Scheer, possibly the only backbencher in parliamentary history to rewrite an industrial nation’s energy policy without ever wielding executive authority —when he described what he’d unleashed upon the German economy: The Second Industrial Revolution.

Since I first started tracking Germany’s green energy revolution circa 2004 — four years into the extraordinary run of its revolutionary feed-in tariff, which recalibrated the price of electricity to favor renewables over fossils and fissiles — I’ve been hearing scoffing. Skepticism. A great dismissive punditocratic pffffft from across the English Channel and across the pond. Get real. As if. Twelve percent renewable power by 2012? Gigawatt-scale solar production in cloud-covered Saxony? Oh, come on.

Well, 17 percent of Germany’s grid is now renewably powered, exceeding its target well ahead of schedule. Those solar-panel fabs are up and running. When Germany showcases its leading-edge design and future-tense engineering, it’s more likely to feature thin-film solar panels, hyper-efficient lighting and next-generation streetcars than German staples like sleek roadsters and durable appliances. The scale of offshore wind manufacturing at Germany’s North Sea ports resembles a Henry Ford take on the Colossus of Rhodes. Its urban redevelopments are smart growth, mixed-use showcases so flawless you’d be forgiven for thinking the East German Communists had been retrained to build green Potemkin villages.

Talk to German architects, product designers, even fashionistas, and the talk returns again and again to making the bold declaration — a sustainable, predominantly green-powered economy — everyday fact. Anyone who thinks the only answer to Germany’s energy future —and ours — lies either in new nukes or dirty old coal hasn’t been to Germany lately.

I can say this with some certainty because, unlike many of the scoffers, I have been to Germany lately. I’ve only just returned from a whirlwind two-week tour. And I’ve come home with the same feeling as every other trip I’ve made to Germany in recent years: Awe. Quiet, wide-eyed awe. There is indeed a second industrial revolution underway. German is its mother tongue, but it translates easily. If you care at all about ending the age of fossil fuels and overcoming the existential challenge of climate change, you should be paying close attention to those translations.

Over the next week in this space, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen most recently. Scoff if you’d like — but in the new green economy, as in the dirty old one, the smartest money remains on German engineering.