During the fourteen years that I've lived in Switzerland, the Germans have been the world's staunchest supporters of green power and alternative energy. Their aggressive development of wind power was breathtaking, as was their warm embrace of photovoltaic power. Over the last few weeks, however, there has been an ominous change in the mainstream German media's tone as the political class finally comes to grips with the unpleasant reality that rooftop solar panels are worthless on short, gray winter days and "For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity." Three recent and highly negative articles from Der Spiegel Online include:
- Solar Subsidy Sinkhole; Re-evaluating Germany's Blind Faith in the Sun;
- Solar Subsidy 'Insanity' Will Cost Consumers; and
- Solar Energy Row is an 'Undignified Spectacle'
As recently as last year, articles like these would have been unthinkable. Today they're viewed as reasonable discussions of critical issues as the laws of thermodynamics and economic gravity assert their absolute primacy.
The Germans have been trailblazers in all things green since the emergence of the Green Party in the 1980s. In fact, it's hard to name an alternative energy technology that Germany hasn't welcomed with open arms. When it comes to green power and alternative energy, the Germans have been on the far left of the technology adoption curve for a very long time.
If the tone of the recent Der Spiegel articles is a reasonable indicator of public sentiment, the innovators are getting ready to throw in the towel on green panacea solutions and get down to the serious work of conserving energy instead. They're weighing the costs and benefits, and reaching an entirely predictable conclusion that it's impossible to depend on variable and inherently unreliable power sources as the backbone of an industrial economy. As Germany goes, so goes the world.
If the world's standard-bearer for green power and alternative energy abandons the quest and chooses a more sensible path of conservation and energy efficiency, the backlash against the solar power industry will be immense and risks to the wind power industry will skyrocket. After all, it's hard to argue the merits of "One for the Price of Two" power solutions; which is exactly what you get when wind and solar power have to be fully backed up by conventional power plants. If the solar and wind power dominoes fall, they'll almost certainly take out the emerging electric vehicle industry that demands huge amounts of money and natural resources to simply substitute one fuel source for another.
Currently all eyes are on Germany as the epicenter of European efforts to restore fiscal balance in an age of profligate and unsustainable government spending. The apparent German surrender on green power and alternative energy may just be an unfortunate victim of that broader effort. Until the dark clouds dissipate and we have a clearer view of the landscape, I'd minimize my exposure to solar, wind and electric drive and focus instead on less costly energy efficiency technologies that work with the laws of thermodynamics and economic gravity instead of fighting them.