A "no-nuclear" Germany would have to build more than 2,800 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines to achieve its new goal of doubling its current renewable power capacity to reach 35 percent by 2020. And it would have to keep building from there, according to analyses of its new national energy plan adopted in July.
Long new lines would carry wind power across the nation to industrial and population centers along the Rhine River from existing wind power farms in the former East Germany and proposed offshore wind turbine clusters. Other direct-current (DC) connections may run under the North Sea, allowing Germany to use Norway's abundant hydropower reservoirs to store surplus wind power at night and draw on the hydropower during the day.
Ahead of Germany lie daunting requirements to install new renewable energy and grid technologies, muster investments, and achieve political consensus on the location of 200-foot-tall transmission towers and their cables that will pass by or through cherished forest and farm lands, picturesque villages and vineyards. Under the new goals, the renewables share of Germany's electric generation capacity must reach 80 percent in 2050, coupled with large energy efficiency gains in buildings to restrain the growth of power demand.
The likely costs of such a transformation are disputed. But there is agreement that to make it all work, Germany must speed up the construction of transmission lines by centralizing more authority for siting and permitting the lines at the federal level.
"Because of legal wrangling, these kinds of [transmission] projects can often take years or even decades to complete," said Christoph Nesshöver of the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne in an interview in March with the German media company Deutsche Welle. "To remain credible, the government has to do something on this front; otherwise, the expansion won't happen."
An overhaul of the power grid
"The grid cannot become the bottleneck of the energy shift," said Stephan Kohler, president of the German Energy Agency, or Deutsche Energie-Agentur GmbH, known by its acronym DENA. Germany's grid is already hampered by bottlenecks, DENA studies show. "Wind and solar power won't do any good if we can't transmit it to where it will be used or stored."
Felix Matthes, a researcher and consultant with Germany's Institute for Applied Ecology, told a Washington audience last week that the new energy law approved overwhelmingly a month ago by the German parliament had, in fact, opened the door to a faster, more certain grid expansion.
A spokesman for Germany's grid regulator, the Bundesnetzasgentur, cautioned, however, that a strong federal role in transmission policies must still be fleshed out. The new Power Grid Expansion Act provides that German state governments still have a say before projects reach the federal regulator, the spokesman said.
Germany's agenda resembles goals of U.S. renewable energy advocates just two years ago. A proposed national renewable energy standard had support from some Senate Democrats and Republicans. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded smart-grid pilot projects aimed at integrating increased wind power and offered cash in lieu of tax credits for new projects. The 2005 Energy Policy Act gave the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission backstop authority to locate new transmission lines through "national interest" regional corridors to strengthen the grid.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed legislation allowing the president to establish "renewable energy zones" where wind or solar power potential was concentrated, and giving FERC ultimate authority to order construction of new transmission to link the zones to urban areas. Foreign wind-power firms were setting up production plans in the United States, and entrepreneurs were scoping out visionary direct-current backbone projects.
Fukushima surfaced deep-seated nuclear fears
Today, a federal renewable energy policy is not in sight, and instead, state and regional priorities will shape the expansion of the U.S. grid and investments in new electric power technologies, experts agree.
Matthes asserts that Germans recognize that their course is set. Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster reignited public fears of nuclear power that reach back to Germany's position as the likely theater for nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had the Cold War ever turned hot, he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear requires setting and achieving a vast expansion of renewable power and transmission. Following Japan's accident, eight of the oldest of Germany's 17 reactors were ordered shut down. The rest will be phased out between 2015 and 2022 in the plan approved by parliament.
Before the older plants were closed, nuclear power provided 22 percent of Germany's electricity; coal 42 percent; natural gas 14 percent and renewable energy 17 percent, according to the Environment Ministry.
Matthes said it is inconceivable that German legislators would do another U-turn on nuclear power in the next five to 10 years, and after that, "the story is finished."
Building sufficient transmission is one challenge. According to grid analysts, after shutting down half of its nuclear fleet, Germany now is importing several million kilowatt-hours of electricity every day, from Czech coal-fired plants and French nuclear reactors. This is not a long-term option, says Antonella Battaglini, program director for the Smart Energy for Europe Platform in Berlin. "I do not believe that Germany will rely on nuclear imports from France. It would be absurd, and the German public probably would not accept it," she said in an interview.
Conflicting estimates of cost
Another challenge is managing the transition without pushing energy prices up so high that they would damage Germany's industrial base, a foundation of export-led growth. Utz Tillmann, president of Germany's Chemical Industry Association, which includes members from the chemicals, metals and paper industries, told Deutsche Welle, "Every single one of these branches is in international competition. It's important for us to discuss competitive prices at different locations."
A study by DENA assumes that by 2020, onshore wind capacity will grow to 37,000 megawatts and 14,000 megawatts offshore, mostly in the North Sea, with smaller, closer-in installations in the Baltic Sea. The cheapest of several renewables expansion scenario in the "DENA II" study could cost $1.4 billion annually. Distribution and power storage costs would add to the total.
Dueling cost estimates for the renewables transition have already appeared. Germany's subsidies for solar energy are high and controversial. German consumers now pay a 7 percent premium on their electricity prices to support wind and solar energy, according to press reports.
Philipp Rösler, head of the Free Democrats and a supporter of the new energy plan, said, "According to our calculations, the cost of a kilowatt of electricity will go up by only 1 cent," Der Spiegel reported. That could come to one latte a month, said Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen.
The Rhenish-Westphalian Institute for Economic Research said the increase could be five times that amount, or $250 a year for the average household. "Not exactly the price of a latte," countered RWI's Manuel Frondel.
"Some people abroad ask: Will Germany manage this?" asked Röttgen, in comments during parliament's debate. "Can it be done? It is the first time that a major industrial country has declared itself ready to carry through this technological and economic revolution." It has no choice, he said, answering his own question.
"The risks are limited" and manageable, Matthes said. "But the risks are there, and you have to deal with them."