Home-Grown Juice: Why the Sunny, Windy United States Is So Far Behind Calm, Cloudy Germany in Renewable Electricity Generation

By Morris, Craig; Hopkins, Nathan | World Watch, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Home-Grown Juice: Why the Sunny, Windy United States Is So Far Behind Calm, Cloudy Germany in Renewable Electricity Generation

Morris, Craig, Hopkins, Nathan, World Watch

Georg Schurer lives in a suburb of Freiburg, a 900-year-old city perched on the fringe of Germany's Black Forest. Herr Schurer's house, sturdy and comfortable, is fairly indistinguishable from the others surrounding it in the Vauban community. The three-story townhouse has large south-facing, triple-glazed windows, a small garden, a shed--and solar panelscovering the entire southern exposure of the roof.


While Freiburg is held to be the warmest city in Germany, the country is hardly famed for its sunniness. Yet the solar panels on Schturer's roof are not all that unusual, thanks to a German energy policy called "feed-in tariffs" (FITs). FITs have democratized energy policy, allowing both ordinary homeowners and corporations to invest directly in renewables. The United States also has policies to promote renewables, but they have largely favored utilities, shutting out the little guy. Though some German solar power plants, scattered from Saarbrucken to Saxony, are the size of football fields, the average solar installation in 2006 only had around 20 panels, each the size of a small tabletop. Clearly, Germany's leadership in solar energy stems not just from large utility plants but from the roofs of ordinary homeowners like Georg Schurer.

Other nations have taken notice. With rising energy prices and an increasingly precarious supply of oil, a diverse group of nations has turned to FITs to promote renewable energy. According to Miguel Mendonca, author of the book Feed-in Tariffs (2007), some 46 countries worldwide have implemented FITs. FITs are now the most commonly used mechanism for the promotion of renewables.

Even in the United States, FITs have gained a toehold, at least at the state level. The states of Washington and Wisconsin have established policies close to Germany's FIT in recent years, and other proposals are based explicitly on the German model, especially a bill introduced in Michigan last fall. A similar bill was presented to the Illinois and Minnesota legislatures in February. And renewables trend-setter California is also discussing how to implement FITs.


Can German FITs be made to fit America?

FITs and Starts

It would be ironic if they could not; feed-in tariffs are an American idea. In the wake of two oil crises in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter called for conservation and alternative energy. California responded in 1983 by establishing standard offer contracts (SOCs), a forerunner of Germany's FITs.

SOCs required utilities to purchase power from qualifying independent generating facilities for 15 to 30 years, and at a fixed rate for the first 10 years of a facility's operation. The policy was a boon for the wind industry, giving it the necessary security to invest, and large forests of wind turbines soon covered the Tehachapi and Altamont Passes in California. Only a few years later, California was getting 1 percent of its electricity from wind turbines. A turning point had been reached.

Or so it seemed to Paul Gipe, who, as executive director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association, helped implement Canada's first FITs. Back in 1984, Gipe went to California to join the fledgling wind industry. He had already been working on wind turbines since the 1970s, when wind generator designs were decades old. Many farmers built their own makeshift rotors, either from specially made blades or even old oars and other unused boards, to charge car batteries. Such devices were important sources of electricity on remote farms back in the 1930s, when private utility companies said it was simply too expensive to expand the grid into sparsely populated areas.

Gipe, communications director in the 1970s for Zond Systems, envisioned turbine designs being quickly improved, with major advances coming from the United States. The next year, however, Zond was forced to lay off just about its entire staff, including Gipe.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Home-Grown Juice: Why the Sunny, Windy United States Is So Far Behind Calm, Cloudy Germany in Renewable Electricity Generation


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?