Germany has been lauded as the leader in distributed, clean energy, its renewable energy strategy touted as one of the most innovative and successful worldwide. The claim certainly has validity—Germany has increased the share of its total electricity production from renewables from 6% to 30% over the past decade; it has the highest per capita installed solar power capacity in the world; and its feed-in tariff (FIT) policy establishes long-term, fixed fee contracts for clean energy producers, encouraging households, cooperatives, and communities alike to produce clean distributed energy.
However, when examining the country’s total energy portfolio, the facts belie Germany’s reputation as “the world’s first major renewable energy economy.” In glaring contrast to its image as a leader in clean energy, Germany is a heavy user of coal and the largest importer of Russian natural gas (over 40 billion cubic meters in 2013).
While a Utopia-like vision has been painted of a country that is utilizing massive amounts of clean energy, in reality, Germany depends on fossil fuel imports for more than 70% of its domestic energy demand. Since nearly 30% of these imports (natural gas, oil, and coal), totaling approximately $103 billion, come from Russia, Germany is clearly in an untoward position as the global community reacts to Vladimir Putin’s aggressive political choices with increasing sanctions and trade restrictions.
Exposed and vulnerable, Germany appears to be at a crossroads. In the short-term, the country could plausibly replace Russian imports with natural gas from Norway and the Netherlands (the other natural gas power players in Europe), or liquefied natural gas (LNG) from countries like Qatar and the US. But neither one of those options is wholly viable in the long-term, as production of natural gas in the North Sea is in decline and the limited supply of LNG has already been allocated to other countries that secured contracts years ago.
Another option, fracking, is being considered—and hotly contested. Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources claims that Germany has access to 2.3 trillion cubic meters of shale gas within its borders, which would satisfy the country’s demand for up to a century. However, pressure from elected officials and environmentalists are blocking forward movement for fracking. In fact, Germany’s Minister of the Environment, Barbara Hendricks, has even proposed a ban on most forms of fracking until 2021.
Critics argue that the proposed ban on fracking will not only inhibit Germany’s ability to reduce its dependence on foreign imports, but will also hinder the country’s economic growth.