National Geographic : 2015 Nov
56 national geographic • november 2015 base. Young Fell demonstrated at Grafenrhein- feld and went to court to refuse military service. Years later, after his father had retired, Fell was elected to the Hammelburg city council. It was 1990, the year Germany was officially reunified—and while the country was preoccu- pied with that monumental task, a bill boost- ing the energiewende made its way through the Bundestag without much public notice. Just two pages long, it enshrined a crucial principle: Pro- ducers of renewable electricity had the right to feed into the grid, and utilities had to pay them a “feed-in tariff.” Wind turbines began to sprout in the windy north. But Fell, who was installing PV panels on his roof in Hammelburg, realized that the new law would never lead to a countrywide boom: It paid people to produce energy, but not enough. In 1993 he got the city council to pass an ordinance obliging the municipal utility to guarantee any renewable energy producer a price that more than covered costs. Fell promptly organized an association of local investors to build a 15-kilo- watt solar power plant—tiny by today’s stan- dards, but the association was one of the first of its kind. Now there are hundreds in Germany. In 1998 Fell rode a Green wave and his suc- cess in Hammelburg into the Bundestag. The Greens formed a governing coalition with the SPD. Fell teamed up with Hermann Scheer, a prominent SPD advocate of solar energy, to craft a law that in 2000 took the Hammelburg experiment nationwide and has since been im- itated around the world. Its feed-in tariffs were guaranteed for 20 years, and they paid well. “My basic principle,” Fell said, “was the pay- ment had to be so high that investors could make a profit. We live in a market economy, after all. It’s logical.” Fell was about the only German I met who claimed not to have been surprised at the boom his logic unleashed. “That it would be possi- ble to this extent—I didn’t believe that then,” said dairy farmer Wendelin Einsiedler. Outside his sunroom, which overlooks the Alps, nine wind turbines turned lazily on the ridge behind the cow pen. The smell of manure drifted in. Einsiedler had started his personal ener- giewende in the 1990s with a single turbine and a methane-producing manure fermenter. He and his brother Ignaz, also a dairy farmer, burned the methane in a 28-kilowatt cogen- erator, generating heat and electricity for their farms. “There was no question of making mon- ey,” Einsiedler said. “It was idealism.” But after the renewable energy law took ef- fect in 2000, the Einsiedlers expanded. Today they have five fermenters, which process corn silage as well as manure from eight dairy farms, and they pipe the resulting biogas three miles to the village of Wildpoldsried. There it’s burned in cogenerators to heat all the public buildings, an industrial park, and 130 homes. “It’s a won- derful principle, and it saves an unbelievable amount of CO2,” said Mayor Arno Zengerle. The biogas, the solar panels that cover many roofs, and especially the wind turbines allow Wildpoldsried to produce nearly five times as much electricity as it consumes. Einsiedler manages the turbines, and he’s had little trou- ble recruiting investors. Thirty people invested in the first one; 94 jumped on the next. “These are their wind turbines,” Einsiedler said. Wind turbines are a dramatic and sometimes contro- versial addition to the German landscape—“as- paragification,” opponents call it—but when people have a financial stake in the asparagus, Einsiedler said, their attitude changes. It wasn’t hard to persuade farmers and homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs; the feed-in tariff, which paid them 50 cents a The German law drove down the cost of solar and wind, making them competitive in many regions with fossil fuels. It helped spark a worldwide boom.