Germany’s Unlikely Renewable Energy Revolutionaries

Another misunderstanding about Germany’s clean energy shift is the idea that somehow “the state” or green treehuggers are behind it.

Well, it ain’t so.

For the most part, Germany’s new energy producers are home owners, small and medium-sided businesses, and farmers, many of the latter who faced ruin only a decade ago. At the heart of Germany’s alternative energy bonanza is the country’s reputed Mittelstand: the nation’s well-situated, educated, conservative, entrepreneurial-minded middle class, which is the backbone of its economy.

Germany’s environment ministry has compiled a fascinating graph that shows exactly who has invested in the country’s renewable energy production: Nearly three quarters of the investment came from small private investors. In a sense of just how much this is: It is the equivalent generation capacity of 20 nuclear power plants. “The state“ owns none of it and the major utlities only 7 percent.

The ownership figures also reflect how dramatically Germany’s energy market has been turned upside-down since liberalization in the late 1990s. Not only has energy production in Germany been pried from the hands of the “Big Four,” namely the four utility giants that had dominated the German energy market, but it is now also radically decentralized. Energy production isn’t concentrated in places with nuclear reactors, but rather distributed across the country, from the Black Forest to the Baltic coast, with over a million people involved as energy producers or investors in energy production. This dispersion has wide-ranging implications not only for Germany’s energy future and power distribution, but ultimately also for democracy.

In an intriguing trend: Ever more numerous among the small-scale private investors are citizen-led cooperatives that bundle their resources to invest in a local PV farm or wind power facilities. In many of them, just 500 euros suffices to be a part owner, with a say in decision making. Around 80,000 citizens are members of several hundred energy collectives today — and the number is growing.

These trends — shifts in power from top to bottom, from the center to the peripheries — have enormous implications for German democracy. In just one example: This conservative Mittelstand now has a vested interest in seeing the Energiewende succeed — and their votes will reflect this.

Lead image: Green city via Shutterstock

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Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based author who has written about Europe since 1989. Paul is the author of three major books on European politics: Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkans Wars, and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany. From 1997-99 he worked with the international mission in Bosnia and 2003-04 in Kosovo. Since then, Paul has held fellowships with the American Academy in Berlin, the European Journalism College in Berlin, and the German Marshall Fund. He was an editor at Internationale Politik, Germany’s leading foreign affairs journal, for five years. He is currently author of the blog Going Renewable and is writing a book about Germany’s energy revolution.

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