German village in vanguard of energy revolution

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FELDHEIM, Germany – This tiny village in a wind-swept corner of eastern Germany seems an unlikely place for a revolution.

Yet environmentalists, experts and politicians from El Salvador to Japan to South Africa have flocked here in the past year to learn how Feldheim, with just 145 people, is already putting into practice Germany’s vision of a future powered entirely by renewable energy.

The German government passed legislation in June setting the country on course to generate one-third of its power through renewable sources – such as wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy – within a decade, reaching 80 percent by 2050, with the aim of creating jobs, increasing energy security and reducing harmful emissions.

The goals are among the most ambitious and expensive in the world, and other industrialized countries are watching to see whether transforming into a nation powered by renewable energy sources can really work.

“Germany can’t afford to fail, because the whole world is looking at the German model and asking: Can Germany move us to new business models, new infrastructure?” said Jeremy Rifkin, a US economist who has advised the European Union.

In June, Germany passed the 20 percent mark for drawing electric power from a mix of wind, solar and other sources of renewable energy. That is compared with about 9 percent in the United States and Japan – both of which rely heavily on hydroelectric power, a source that has long been used.

Expanding renewables depends on the right mix of resources, as well as government subsidies, investment incentives and a willingness by taxpayers to shoulder some of the burden. Germans currently pay a tax of 3.5 euro cents (4.5 US cents) for each kilowatt-hour – roughly 157 euros a year for a typical family of four – to support research, investment and subsidies for the production and consumption of energy from renewable sources.

That allows for homeowners who install solar panels on their rooftops, or communities such as Feldheim that build their own biogas plants, to be paid above-market prices for selling back to the grid – to ensure that their investment at least breaks even.

Critics, such as the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, maintain such tariffs put an unfair burden of expanding renewables squarely on the taxpayer. At the same time, to make renewable energy work on the larger scale, Germany will have to pour billions into infrastructure, including updating its grid.

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