Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.
A reckoning is at hand, and nowhere is that clearer than in Germany. Even as the country sets records nearly every month for renewable power production, the changes have devastated its utility companies, whose profits from power generation have collapsed. 1
A similar pattern may well play out in other countries that are pursuing ambitious plans for renewable energy. Some American states, impatient with legislative gridlock in Washington, have set aggressive goals of their own, aiming for 20 or 30 percent renewable energy as soon as 2020.
The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition. Worldwide, Germany is being held up as a model, cited by environmental activists as proof that a transformation of the global energy system is possible.
But it is becoming clear that the transformation, if plausible, will be wrenching. Some experts say the electricity business is entering a period of turmoil beyond anything in its 130-year history, a disruption potentially as great as those that have remade the airlines, the music industry and the telephone business.
Taking full advantage of the possibilities may require scrapping the old rules of electricity markets and starting over, industry observers say — perhaps with techniques like paying utilities extra to keep conventional power plants on standby for times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. The German government has acknowledged the need for new rules, though it has yet to figure out what they should be. A handful of American states are beginning a similar reconsideration of how their electric systems operate.
“It’s pretty amazing what’s happening, really,” said Gerard Reid, an Irish financier working in Berlin on German energy projects. “The Germans call it a transformation, but to me it’s a revolution.”
The potential payoff for getting the new rules right is enormous: a far greener electricity system that does not pump as much greenhouse gas and other pollution into the atmosphere. Yet as the German experience shows, the difficulties of the transition are likely to be enormous, too, and it is still far from clear whether the system can be transformed fast enough to head off dangerous levels of global warming.
- Which is exactly why the Kock brothers are funding so many GOP and right-wing causes – not because the Koch’s believe in their politician’s bullshit rhetoric, but because the right-wingers are also against renewable power sources. Expect this to be a HUGE battle in the U.S., with jackasses like Brownback leading the Forces of E-vil. ↩