Ireland has much to learn from Germany’s Energiewende
Plugging into the power of ‘citizen energy’ thanks to cheap renewable technologies
In Germany 31 per cent of renewable energy production is owned by its citizens. Photograph: iStock
The vineyards at Weingut Huster were converted to organic production 25 years ago and produce a fine Riesling. Here on the hills between the Rhine and the Moselle, the sun not only helps the grapes to grow, it powers the winery through dozens of solar panels installed on the roof.
The solar panels are also a viable financial proposition, contributing to the Huster bottom line. Most of the electricity is used right here on site, but the rest is sold through a community energy co-operative, UrStrom, which owns and operates the PV installation on the roof.
It’s a model common across Germany, where 31 per cent of renewable energy production is owned by its citizens, who have played a huge part in what Germans call the Energiewende – the energy transition – creating thousands of different local initiatives, co-ops and innovative business models. UrStrom also has installations across the city of Mainz, including one that completely covers the headquarters of the local police.
“The EU Clean Energy Package made it clear that people living in the EU have the right to create consume, and trade their own energy,” says Klaus Grieger of UrStrom. “At the moment there is a big shift to solar. We believe it’s a human right to use the sun. You cannot tax the sun!”
“Even without the climate issue it’s a no-brainer,” says Prof Peter Beck of the Trier University of Applied Sciences. “You’re adding value, independence and development instead of sending your money away to Saudi Arabia and Russia. There are now 400 villages in Germany that are basically energy independent. Mayors talk to mayors and they make it work.”
With Ireland under growing pressure to meet its climate targets, the government here is due to announce a new Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS), which will include measures to incentivise communities and promote solar energy, which has been a slow burner here. The heatwave may have proved that there is no shortage of sun, and consultants for the Department of Climate Action believe rooftop solar can be financially viable – without supports – in at least one region by 2025 and that ground mounted PV could be viable in several regions by 2030.
Travelling across the rolling hills of Rhein Hunsrueck the proliferation of wind turbines is staggering
Up to now most renewable energy projects in Ireland have involved developer- led schemes focusing on wind, but the new scheme, which is expected to be technology neutral is also expected to give communities a greater role. A report by Ricardo Associates for the department pointed out that the benefits of community ownership go beyond financial returns; they help stimulate innovative solutions and business models.
The German state of Rhineland Palatinate has been a forerunner in citizen involvement. “The success of our energy policy depends on it being locally owned and decentralised,” says the state secretary for energy and environment, Thomas Griese. But even in Germany gaining support for renewable energy projects isn’t always easy.
Travelling across the rolling hills of Rhein Hunsrueck the proliferation of wind turbines is staggering. It’s white asparagus season here, and opponents say that wind turbines are “vershpargeling” – asparagusing – rather like mushrooming. Some landowners here are now “energy farmers”, who can make up to €40,000 per turbine per year by leasing their land to wind developers.
As in Ireland there has been a growing pushback. In Hunsbrueck, however, some of the turbines are on communal land, which has seen communities benefit directly, and has reduced opposition. An enthusiastic former mayor of the district, Bertram Fleck, says the area generated three times as much electricity as it consumed in 2017.
“When I talk to my Green Party colleagues I talk about the climate,” he says, but when I talk to farmers and entrepreneurs I talk about money, and ask them why do you send your money away to oil producers?” Fleck frequently quotes Friedrich Raffeisen, the German founder of the credit union movement, whose philosophy was “the money of the village for the village”.
Fleck gets an obvious kick out of explaining how he has done deals between villages, which he calls a “solidarity pact”. “The windmills may be in one, spoiling the view of the others, so I suggest they share the revenue, giving some to individuals and some to the community to spend on social services, for example,” he says. “There’s a lot of creativity involved, and it depends on how agile and sensitive the person promoting the development is.”
In one German state, Mecklenburg, windpower developers must offer a 30 per cent stake to local people. It’s expected that something similar will be introduced here, though the percentage is likely to be lower.
One of the main issues to be decided is the future subsidy structure. German feed-in tariffs were very high at the start (up to 50 cents per kWh in some cases) and guaranteed for up to 20 years, which accounts for the high uptake. Rates have now fallen to as low as 4 cents at auctions, because of the staggering drop in the cost of wind and solar.
Another lesson from Germany is that one kind of project seems to lead to another
Ireland’s feed-in tariff regime expired for new entrants in 2015, and the draft recommendation is that it should be replaced by a Floating Feed-in Premium (FIP), which would represent the difference between the strike price and a reference market price. Consultants have recommended auctions for bigger projects, and support for community projects, but have advised against financial support for microgeneration on cost grounds. The main incentive scheme is in the form of the Renewable Energy Support Scheme, which has been approved by the Cabinet. A separate microgeneration scheme is being rolled out but initially on a pilot basis.
Green party leader and former minister for energy Eamon Ryan welcomes the fact that solar is likely to take off in Ireland under the new scheme, but says large-scale solar parks shouldn’t gobble all the investment. He wants to see public buildings converted, council houses retrofitted with solar, and a subsidy for individual rooftop PV to sell into the grid. “What we’ve learned from Germany is that this kind of involvement builds support for the overall transition to low carbon,” he says. “We’re so far behind here. We need big and small projects to reach our targets.”
Another lesson from Germany is that one kind of project seems to lead to another. Heating is a massive part of final energy demand, as is transport. One village in Rhein Hunsrueck has used the money it has earned from leasing communal land to wind parks to build a solar thermal and biomass district heating plant. It has also bought electric cars for social care workers.
All these activities have put renewables centre stage, so that the phrase Energiewende is well understood in Germany. However it hasn’t always been easy for those involved. Dr Petra Gruna Bauer of the Solix energy co-operative, which has 113 members aged from 2 to 80, believes that someone in each community has to stand up and take the lead.
“After the first installation, I said I would never do it again,” she says. “But I’m still here. You have to face a lot of prejudice at the start, but now people are very proud of ‘our PVs’. We’re moving into e-car sharing next. It’s all through the power of citizen energy.”