Switching to Solar by Bob Johnstone

By Paul Gipe

Let’s get this out of the way up front. I have a bias toward Johnstone’s Switching to Solar. I think every renewable energy policy advocate in the US should read his book.

Hell, it should be required reading.

And if I had my druthers, they would be tested on Part 3, Hier Kommt die Sonne, or how cloudy Germany came from nowhere to lead the solar race.

It’s especially critical that the folks at Vote Solar, SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association), and ASES (the American Solar Energy Society be tested on Part 3. And, since I am a wind guy, let’s throw in AWEA (the American Wind Energy Association) too. As it stands now, most of them would flunk in their knowledge of Germany and how it has become a renewable energy powerhouse. Unfortunately, most of what these organizations know of Germany is myths of their own making so they can more easily tolerate their embarrassment at how little they’ve accomplished.

Yes, Johnstone trods some of the same ground I’ve trod and includes some of the same observations I’ve made about Germany. But his is a new voice to the chorus singing the praise of Germany’s success and we need new voices more than ever. My voice is getting shriller by the day with frustration and that’s beginning to wear on policy makers who think the Germans may indeed have something to teach us, but just what that really is they don’t really know.

To Johnstone’s credit he starts with Aachen–Aix-en-Chapelle to francophones–the German city bordering French-speaking Belgian. I was late to learn of Aachen’s importance in the history of modern renewable energy policy in Germany, but Johnstone got it right at the get-go and then headed straight there to interview the people responsible. And his resulting portraits are the work of a true professional wordsmith.

Johnstone also sees as significant that German Lutheran churches are sporting solar PV systems all across the country as part of their biblical injunction to “protect God’s creation”. The policy the Germans use makes this possible. Actually it makes it possible for everyone to do it, rich and poor alike unlike California where solar is only for the rich in their McMansions. See California’s Solar Program Costs More Than German Feed-in Tariffs for an explanation.

Moreover, I heartily agree with his principle thesis: We can learn from Germany’s success with renewable energy. And Johnstone quickly singles out what the German’s got right in his Introduction, “a simple, highly effective policy mechanism known as a feed-in tariff”.

So, obviously, I think he’s doing something right.

Not since Craig Morris’ 2006 book Energy Switch: Proven Solutions for a Renewable Future has a book explained to Anglophone readers what the Germans have accomplished and how they did it.

Written by a professional writer, Switching to Solar is simply a good read full of the colorful personalities that brought renewables to life in Germany: Aachen’s Wolf von Fabeck, the physicist Harry Lehman, SMA’s Gunther Cramer, the Green’s Hans-Josef Fell, and of course the human bulldozer of German renewable policy, the late Hermann Scheer.

And if you’re a policy maker or renewable energy advocate and you don’t know why those names are important, read the book, or get out of the way.

Switching to Solar has the clearest, most entertaining, and most thorough description of the dogged determination that made renewable energy policy possible in Germany, and the role that chance played.

In much the same way as the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) became law in the US, Germany’s first feed-in law, the Stromeinspeisungsgesetz (StrEG), snaked its way quietly through parliament as the country’s giant electric utilities were looking the other way. German utilities were distracted by absorbing utilities in the former East Germany after th 1989 reunification and they’ve been trying to recover lost ground ever since.

Literally the law on feeding electricity into the grid, the StrEG allowed renewable generators to connect to the grid, and-unlike PURPA in the US-specified how much they would be paid.

But the original law was designed only for wind and hydro. Though included solar was included, the pricing mechanism didn’t pay enough to make solar work.

The key to Aachen’s contribution and ultimately to Germany’s success was a simple concept that renewable generation, in this case from solar PV, should be paid a “fair” price based on the cost generating the electricity. The idea is fundamental to markets and has been a principle behind regulating the price of electricity from utility companies for almost a century. The radical concept in Aachen was to apply this principle to solar energy just as it has been applied previously to coal, nuclear, oil, and gas.

What Aachen said, in effect is “we want solar, this is what it costs,” and, thus, “this is what has to be paid for the electricity.”

Once Aachen implemented the policy, the idea swept German cities and eventually parliament accepted the challenge in 2000 and applied the principle across the nation and across a whole host of technologies-and they haven’t looked back.

Oh, yes, Switching to Solar also includes the obligatory chapters on US and California solar policy. And while the story is frustrating to those of us who’ve worked in the field for decades, these chapters are-in their way–enlightening too. They give a glimpse into the thinking, the attitudes, and the narrow-mindedness of some of those who claim that they are working in the best interests of the renewable energy revolution. Reading these sections you can begin to understand why the US is so far behind and continues to lose ground.

Who Invented the Solar Feed-in Tariff (FIT)? –Or What We Can Learn From Aachen’s Success in Harnessing Clean Energy by Bob Johnstone

My take on Aachen’s leading role: The Aachen Solar Tariff Model.

Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn from Germany’s Success in Harnessing Clean Energy by Bob Johnstone, Prometheus Books, ISBN: 978-1-61614-222-3; paper; 402 pages; $19 USD; www.prometheusbooks.com.




Part 1: The First Coming: How the US Invented Solar Technology, Built an Industry, then Dropped the Ball

1. A Most Exciting Adventure
2. To Hell with the Generals
3. Cells and Gasoline
4. Camel with the Fridge on Top
5. Skunk the Government
6. End of “Solar Socialism”

Part 2: Hundreds, Thousands, . . . Millions? Early Attempts to Put Solar on Roofs in the United States, Switzerland, and Japan

7. Like a Snowball Down a Mountainside
8. Alpha Male
9. Glorious SMUD
10. Beware the Camel’s Nose
11. Land of the Rising Solar

Part 3: Hier Kommt Die Sonne: How Cloudy Germany Came from Nowhere to Lead the Solar Race

12. Leaving the Army to Fight
13. A Persuasive Demonstration
14. Solar Proliferator
15. Escape from STAWAG
16. Electricity Rebels
17. An Ecological Masterpiece
18. Making of Solar Valley

Part 4: The Second Coming: Pushing PV in California, Bottom Up and Top Down

19. Catching Rays in Fog Town
20. Solar’s Not for Sissies
21. A Tale of Two Cities
22. FIT USA?
23. Exit Hippies, Enter Stanford MBAs

Part 5: Just the Beginning: Utility-Scale Solar, China, and the Shape of PV to Come

24. Good Soldiers
25. Mirrors without Smoke
26. Ballad of a Thin Film
27. Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency
28. Accidental Emperor
29. Nano Solar