It was a bright June day in Berlin, and four ultralight solar panels lining the front of a balcony were soaking up the sun. They were hanging from velcro straps just below some flower boxes.
This balcony was at the office of We Do Solar, where co-founder Karolina Attspodina was showing her product: easy-to-install, plug-and-play at-home solar.
“Anyone can actually put it up on their balcony, whether they're tech-savvy or not,” she said, pointing to an extension cord. “And everything works from a normal power socket.”
On a sunny day, these panels can meet about a quarter of an average household’s energy needs. That means, in the long run, huge cuts to energy bills.
In February 2022, We Do Solar launched its product in Germany, and early interest was strong. Then, just a few days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
“As soon as, I think, the war started, people really panicked,” Attspodina said. “The demand just went sky high. We were sold out for quite some time.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year upended energy markets throughout Europe. But no country was hit harder than Germany. At the time, more than half of Germany’s gas came from Russia. The country had to double down on fossil fuels in the short term: keeping coal-fired power plants open longer and building new liquefied natural gas terminals. But in the long term, the war pushed a government falling behind on renewable energy goals to enact some ambitious new policies. Some of those changes are going well, but they face headwinds elsewhere.
For many individuals, soaring gas prices meant bringing solar power home. For the federal government, it meant a new renewable energy target: getting all of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2035. To make that happen, Germany adopted a new set of ambitious energy policies last spring. That included removing value-added taxes on solar panels, which has kept We Do Solar busy. Attspodina, who’s Ukrainian, sees these policies as a silver lining to the war.
“Sometimes I feel like something needs to happen for people to move and for people to change.”
“It is unfortunate that it happened in [the] way that this shift is happening because of the war and because of such a sad situation,” Attspodina said. “But sometimes I feel like something needs to happen for people to move and for people to change. And that's exactly what we're seeing right now.”
Germany’s new energy policy also classified switching to renewable energy as a matter of public safety that can override other public interests, like preserving views that are in place. That means that the government has new power to mandate changes. One being discussed now is requiring electricity-based heat pumps instead of gas boilers in new or updated heating systems.
Henrik Beuster, a spokesperson at the city’s grid operator, Stromnetz Berlin, said switching to heat pumps is necessary to reach Germany’s climate goals. But the policy has been extremely controversial, partly because heat pumps are expensive.
“In Germany, in general, we are not so flexible when it comes to change,” Buster said. “This is something where people said, ‘Okay, I have to do something, and it will be expensive for me.’ So, I think this is what people might fear.”
Beuster said that politicians should take a lesson from the success of solar and offer citizens incentives to opt in. Berlin, for example, is offering a 500 Euro credit for installing at-home solar. By not forcing people but rather offering them an incentive to save money, Beuster said that people would be more willing to make the switch for themselves.
As part of its new renewable energy policy, Germany is also betting big on wind power: In the next decade, they plan to double their onshore wind capacity. That means that outside of cities, the German landscape is undergoing a transformation.
Just two hours from Berlin lies the tiny village of Feldheim: Germany’s first energy-self-sufficient town. After the end of the Cold War, this former communist farm collective decided to pool its resources toward a new shared goal: wind production. By 2010, the town of only 125 people was entirely energy-self-sufficient. Now, they’ve expanded their operations, and residents are reaping the benefits — paying a tiny fraction of the market price for their electricity, and earning a fraction of what’s sold on the national market.
Past acres of massive wind turbines, tour guide Kathleen Thompson says that since the town bought its first turbine in 1995, it’s added 54 more that help keep the lights on throughout Germany.
“We use less than 1% of the electricity that’s being generated here in Feldheim,” Thompson said.
For Germany to reach its goals, more places need to look like Feldheim. The government has committed to covering 2% of its land in wind power by 2032. That may not sound like a lot, but it would more than double the current capacity. But rural Germans have protested the wind intrusion in most nearby towns and nationwide. With hundreds of lawsuits stalling projects, the federal government will likely use its newly mandated power to push wind through.
However, Feldheim’s mayor Michael Knape says there’s another way: If towns can lead their own change, everyone benefits. In the 1990s, he said, it wasn’t so bureaucratic or expensive for a town to produce its own power. Starting in the mid-2010s, new regulations meant a shift in ownership from local citizens to large corporations.
“We chose the right time period with the right laws in place,” Knape said. “I don’t think that if we started today, Feldheim could afford to do the same.”
To Knape, getting local buy-in should mean letting citizens actually buy in. Whether that’s sharing ownership, like in Feldheim, or at least paying neighbors for building near their land.
Germany may be learning that lesson. Its updated renewable energy policy includes new incentives and protections for community-owned renewables. And the government is simplifying the approval process for wind, solar and other projects.
As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a speech last year, the country sees “Putin’s war” as an “accelerator of necessary change.”
Related: Renewable energy seen as an answer to Ukraine’s wartime energy woes
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