Germany's Experience: How Effective Are Renewables, Really?

By Jens Lubbadeh and

The last 10 years have seen massive amounts of taxpayer money invested in renewable energies in Germany. Growth in the industry has been rapid. But has the development been universally good? SPIEGEL ONLINE takes a look at those renewables with promise -- and those which might flop.

An offshore windpark off the coast of Germany. Zoom
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An offshore windpark off the coast of Germany.

It was all very small when it began. A couple liters of biodiesel here, a small wind turbine there. Maybe a few solar panels with an output just enough to run a pocket calculator.

But then April 1, 2000 came along. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government had been in office a mere year and a half. But on that day, a law came into power that was to completely alter the German energy market. The rather unwieldy name: Law for the Promotion of Renewable Energies -- EEG for short. Later, the law regulating biofuel quotas was added, as was another measure governing the use of geothermal power. The aim was clear. The fuel, electricity and heating markets were to be revolutionized.

Photo Gallery

8  Photos
Graphics Gallery: Germany's Renewable Energy Mix

And the new laws were effective. High government subsidies massively increased the demand for wind turbines and solar panels. Germany was soon transformed into an ecologist's paradise.

In the 1990s, the energy market was simple. Germans got their power from coal-fired power plants or nuclear facilities. They filled up their tanks with conventional fuel and heated their homes with oil or natural gas. But the last decade has seen a radical shift. Green power became popular, drivers switched to biodiesel and homeowners changed over to wood pellet heating.

Coal and nuclear power still dominate the market, as do oil and gas. But the tectonic shift has begun: Each year, the share of renewables rises. Indeed, electricity from renewable energy sources already supplies 15 percent of Germany's electricity needs. In some German states, wind power supplies more than 35 percent.

Yet, far from all questions surrounding renewables have been answered. When, for example, will renewable energy sources be able to survive without subsidies? Will they continue to grow? Will we be able to develop a way to store energy generated from the wind and sun? It seems clear that, whereas some energy sources will prosper, others are destined for failure.

SPIEGEL ONLINE takes a look at the individual forms of renewable energy, examines the technology behind them and examines their chances on the open market.

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