My Indecent Offer to the Chancellor–Because We Cannot Let the Energy Transition Fail!—A Review

By Paul Gipe

I’d already marked up my version of Matthias Willenbacher’s book My Indecent Offer to the Chancellor in the faint hope of some day posting a review from the German—it’s difficult and time consuming and there’s always the risk that as a native English speaker I am missing something important or worse misinterpreting a passage.

Yes, this is old news. Willenbacher’s proposed his offer to Chancellor Merkel mid-summer, well before the fall election. But Germany’s enegiewende remains in play and the themes he raises in his slim book are still critical to Germany’s renewable energy future—and, like it or not, the world’s renewable energy future. What happens in Germany in the coming year will have profound and far reaching effects on phasing out not only nuclear but fossil fuels worldwide.

Fortunately, Willenbacher has had the main portions translated into English and that’s a big help to us language-challenged Americans. There’s more in the original German, including a description of Juwi’s project in Morhbach where the company participated in turning swords into plowshares.

Willenbacher starred in Die 4. Revolution – Energy Autonomy, a film based on Hermann Scheer’s last book—a film his company financially supported. He’s fond of showing off his Tesla and Juwi’s fleet of electric vehicles.

Is Willenbacher a showman? Certainly. But unlike most he delivers the goods. He and his colleague Fred Jung founded the successful renewable company, Juwi,  (short for Jung and Willenbacher), one of the most desirable places to work in Germany. He walks the talk on his family’s farm, where it all began, and in the office building that houses Juwi. And in the coming battle for the heart of the energiewende, a bigger-than-life personality such as Willenbacher could make the difference between success or failure.

Fortunately, the English translation does include the most important section of the book where Willenbacher talks about modern IEC Class III wind turbines, explaining what they are and why that’s significant. When you get down to it, this is the heart of the energiewende and Willenbacher’s proposal.

North Americans may be unfamiliar with the terminology of “full-load hours” that he uses to emphasize the importance of these new wind turbines. However, the expression conveys the same idea as “capacity factor” used here and “plant factor” in Britain—the relative utilization of the generator inside the wind turbine throughout the year compared to its “rated capacity”. While this may seem esoteric, it also conveys the relative utilization of the transmission capacity that the wind turbine is connected too. And that is the message. These new wind turbines are not only more cost-effective than those that have gone before, but they use the existing transmission capacity more effectively, and this substantially reduces the need for costly expansion of the transmission system infrastructure.

And this discussion on the new wind turbines leads to Willenbacher’s other main point: meeting the energiewende’s objective will require much less land area for wind turbines than even recently thought.

These modern wind turbines produce nearly twice the amount of electricity relative to their generating capacity as previous designs. Thus, you need half as many megawatts—and land area—to generate 60% of Germany’s electricity.

This leads directly to Willenbacher’s most salient point, his formula for the energiewende: 60+25+5. He tells us specifically what this means

“We can cover around 60 percent of our energy needs with wind power, and around 25 percent with solar power. If we add 5 percent from hydroelectricity, then up to 90 percent of our energy needs can be covered using wind, solar and hydroelectricity as direct sources. The rest will be supplied from combined heat and power plants that are run using bioenergy.”

The concept is not new, nor is Willenbacher alone in reaching this conclusion. French renewable energy engineer Bernard Chabot has been saying this for some time. However, Willenbacher is a well-known industry figure with the money to put his ideas before the public and in front of German political leaders.

What may be lost on those who don’t follow the industry is that Willenbacher’s company happily makes money developing biogas and solar projects as well as wind. And because of this, he knows the different technologies better than most others in the renewable energy industry that focus on only one technology. He knows what they can—and just as importantly—what they can’t do.

This is why it’s significant when he, in effect, says “you can’t just develop solar” and make the energy transition work. His message needs to drummed into the heads of some “leaders” in the environmental community in the US where the talk is “all solar, all the time”.

As I’ve argued before, you need a mix of renewable resources if we want to meet not just 100% of our electricity with renewables, but 100% of our heating and 100% of our transportation as well. We can’t do it with solar photovoltaics alone and Willenbacher drives this home in his book because he can speak from experience.

Willenbacher launched the book with a full-on campaign using a dedicated web site, post cards, and now the English translation. Willenbacher also has his own blog.

North Americans in particular also may not be aware that Willenbacher is a strong proponent of community ownership of the renewable projects he builds. His book was also packaged with a companion campaign promoting local ownership of renewable energy under the slogan “Die Wende—Energie in Bürgerhand” or “The Transition—Energy in the Hands of Citizens”. The message is simple as it is radical to a North American: put the energiewende into the hands of the people. Sounds revolutionary. Come to think of it, sounds like something Thomas Jefferson or James Madison could have said.

English translation of  the main passages from Mein Unmoralische Angebot an die Kanzlerin: Denn die Energiewende darf nicht scheitern! By Matthias Willenbacher, Herder Verlag GmbH, ISBN-10: 3451309262, 154 pages, German, 2013, $12.

For a more critical take from someone immersed in German energy politics, see Craig Morris’ series on Willenbacher’s book, the proposal, and German energy democracy.