Tracing Germany’s Energiewende Back to the US

Chancellor Merkel’s government has occupied the term Energiewende (clean energy transition) and made it its own, as if it had coined the moniker in the first place. In fact, its origins go back deep into West Germany’s mass movements and ultimately have their source in the United States, during the short-lived alternative energy boom of the 1970s.

Only in the aftermath of Fukushima did Merkel really get behind Germany’s clean energy revolution. Since then, in both the German and the international media, the term Energiewende has been linked to her government. The implication is that the center-right administration itself conceived Germany’s clean energy transition polices in the wake of Fukushima.

This is not the case. Germany’s Energiewende has been long in the making. In 1976 the US physicist and alternative energy guru Amory Lovins coined the term “soft energy path” to describe a future in which renewable energy sources steadily replace fossil and nuclear fuels. His 1977 book Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace caught the eye of German anti-nuclear energy activists who had spent significant time in the United States, in California.

Thus the idea of Florentin Krause, a Frankfurt-based activist, and two co-authors was to apply Lovins’s soft path theories to Germany. The product was the paperback Energie-Wende – Wachstum und Wohlstand ohne Erdöl und Uran published in 1980 by the Freiburg-based think tank Öko-Institut. The authors sketched alternative scenarios for a non-nuclear future based on a limited growth economy, energy conservation, and solar power.

Among those prominently thanked in the book’s foreword are the Friends of the Earth (San Francisco), Amory Lovins, and the California-based NGO International Project to Encourage Soft Energy Paths for their assistance “especially with information about new developments in alternative energy technologies abroad.”  At the time, the Soft Energy Paths movement, Lovins’s brainchild, was gaining momentum across the US.  Solar above all was being pushed by the Carter administration and key technological breakthroughs were happen in photovoltaics in the US, not in Europe.

This progress and these programs however were promptly quashed when the Reagan administration came to power in 1980. But the West Germans picked up on the innovations, particularly photovoltaics, and ran with them.

“At the beginning of the 1980s,” writes the Öko-Institut about Energie-Wende, “this was a complete novelty.  The de-linking of  economic growth and energy use was clearly a red flag for the conventional energy branch. With this publication, the Öko-Institut was the first to question this assumption, a matter of faith for Germany’s representatives in the business world, politics, and academia.”

The book had such an impact that the three authors crisscrossed the country in the early 1980s speaking to interested citizen’s initiatives. In parts of the country Energiewende citizen’s committees were formed to engage on behalf of energy conservation and renewables. The book sold beyond the Öko-Institute’s wildest expectations.

Was the source of the term Energiewende then really the United States?

“In part, yes, of course,” says Energie-Wende co-author Hartmut Bossel. “In particular California was out in front on new technical solutions like solar modules, windmills, and small water works.” Bossel lived in the US for years in the late 1960s and early 1970s where he taught mechanical engineering and worked on alternative energy projects.

The term was adopted in the 1980s in Greens circles, in the grassroots movements, and in the alternative press, like Die Tageszeitung (taz). It took ever more concrete shape as Greens and leftist Social Democrats devised more detailed plans to replace nuclear and fossil fuels with renewable, zero-carbon alternatives.

But Merkel owns the term for now.  If she doesn’t do a better job of filling it with positive meaning, it could well end up costing her government in the 2013 election. But if up against a wall, the Germans can always blame California for the Energiewende.

Lead image: Cologne, Germany 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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