Thursday, September 6, 2012

Germany: Leading the Way

Racing across the German countryside at 200km/hr (120mph), I see how this country at the heart of Europe has been able to incorporate green energy production into its society and make its economy one of the strongest in the world.

I am riding the Euro-Rail Inter City Express (ICE) from Berlin to Frankfurt, and less than 20 minutes from the start of this journey I notice an unfamiliar shape on the horizon. As I draw closer, I recognize the outline as a wind turbine - the first in a large wind farm that stretches for miles along the train route. This wind farm must contain at least 500 of these electricity generating works of art - each capable of producing up to 3 megawatts of electricity (enough energy for 1000 homes). Beneath the windmills in the foreground sit acres and acres of photo-voltaic (electricity producing) solar panels.

The people of Germany have combined their desire for a clean environment with their engineering know-how, and they have decided to develop new sources of clean energy to help them move away from harmful fossil fuels. Like the United States, Germany has a large, talented and educated pool of labor. This has enabled the development of Germany's clean energy industry. But unlike the Washington, Berlin has already decided to remove incentives which encourage the use of fossil fuels and to add incentives that encourage the production of clean energy. The German people understand that the oil party will end some day, and the resulting hang-over will be immense. They are weening themselves from fossil fuels while they still have a choice in the matter.

Some say that government has no role in choosing winners and losers in the energy sector. They say that we should simply allow the free market to take its course. The main problem with that argument is that there is no "free market" in America's energy economy. The established companies have rigged the system to perpetuate their own existence and to undercut the development of alternatives. Plus, the oil companies lobby Congress to give them tax breaks (free money) - nothing about that has anything to do with a "free market". Congress provides at least $4 billion in economic incentives to oil companies every year. These companies are already by far the most profitable corporations that have ever exited on the face of this planet.

A second problem with the "free market" argument is that it abdicates our responsibility to pass on a better world to our children. Our challenge in developing public policy in the United States is to evaluate the long-term consequences of policy alternatives and choose a way forward that will benefit future generations - not just this year's balance sheets. America should not be locked into policies that destroy the environment and lead to increased warfare over the planet's finite oil resources. We can use our collective knowledge and ingenuity to build a better future, while leaving behind the false "free market" arguments which justify doing nothing and marching off a cliff like a pack of lemmings.

Germany is racing to the future on high-speed trains fueled by clean electricity from solar and wind power. The United States should get in this race.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

Fast trains would be nice. Imagine a trip to and from BC, Portland, and even LA. As for power, we have easy access to hydro and geothermal to add more variety to the mix.