A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published one of those great big multistory special-project packages the newspapers sometimes do (though not nearly enough). The subject was Germany — a subject that frequent readers of this blog (my thanks to both of you) will know is near and dear to my heart. The focus of the package was on how Germany had “come roaring out of the financial crisis” boasting one of the healthiest economies in the world.
It was one of the sort of tangential minor stories that caught my eye. This one: “In Germany’s Bioenergy Villages, Power to the People.” The story details the emergence of a grassroots movement in villages across Germany to shift to locally produced biofuel other decentralized power sources — solar especially — for home heating and electricity generation. There are 70 German villages already disengaged from the conventional energy supply in this manner and more than a dozen more in the works.
The most common technique, as the WSJ notes, has been to build a village-scale heating plant powered by whatever resources are most easily obtained locally — manure in some cases, wood chips or farm crops in others, with rooftop solar or village-scale wind farms also in the mix.
Probably the most remarkable thing about the movement, though, is its demographics. These projects are, in the main, championed by longtime residents of traditional German villages. Staunch conservatives, in other words.
Listen to the way they talk. “We don't need energy from large corporations. We’ve ... got wood for that.” That’s the 51-year-old spokesperson for the village of Jühnde. Here’s a 72-year-old retiree from Oberrosphe: “We don’t want to be getting 3,050 liters of oil off some ship from Saudi Arabia ... the money stays here in the community.”
These villagers are touching upon one of the most important points about renewable energy, one that too often gets lost in talk of gigawatt-scale manufacture and nuclear-sized phaseouts. Renewable energy — with the exception of old-school hydro and offshore wind – is decentralized power. Because it doesn’t need big centralized power plants or extraction and refining facilities, it can be done at a town or village or even household scale. It subverts centralized bureaucracy, reduces dependence on imported fuel sources, severs ties to faraway oil and coal and gas and uranium.
This makes renewable energy intrinsically revolutionary. It shifts the paradigm, changes the game, gets Big Energy and Big Bureaucracy (government or otherwise) off your back. It’s no surprise it’s having the greatest impact in Germany, where renewable energy has been most widely embraced. What’s surprising is that this line of cleantech advocacy – which is basically Tea Party rhetoric minus the tricornered hats, Glenn Beckian misinformation and palpable xenophobia – hasn’t caught on in the United States.
What could be a greater force for individual liberty, after all, than to sieze direct control of the appartus of energy production? What kind of twisted definition of small-government conservatism finds itself advocating for bigger and more centralized energy bureaucracy? Drill-baby-drilling in northern Alaska, fracking for gas in central Pennsylvania, mountaintop-removal mining and “clean coal” research – sorry, small-government champions, but these are inherently centralized, large-scale, ultra-bureaucratic operations.
You want to embrace the radical decentralization of federal power (at least as regards to energy supply)? You and the rest of your local Tea Party chapter should be hopping a flight to Frankfurt post-haste, figuring out how it was that a bunch of old Germans suspicious of foreign governments and their own bureaucracy have put themselves into command positions in the energy biz. Because that represents a real coup.
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