The U.S. lacks national environmental policy

Should we model such a policy on Germany?

Thoughts on Earth. Sarah Liebig.
Thoughts on Earth. Sarah Liebig.

Among the most poignant changes the United States could make for the world’s environmental future is adopting a renewable energy policy modeled on Germany’s renewable energy policy. The United States does not currently have a renewable energy policy — something I was quite surprised and disappointed to learn. Rather than having a national renewable energy policy, states are free to construct their own energy policies if they wish. For example, Minnesota’s energy policy states that 25 percent of the energy used in the state will be derived from renewable sources by the year 2025. North Dakota, on the other hand, falls far behind Minnesota regarding renewable energy policy despite the fact that there is great potential for wind, solar and biomass energy in the state. North Dakota’s Renewable Energy Council was established in 2007. Its goals are much less tangible than one can find in Minnesota. Granted, with the copious fossil fuel mining in western North Dakota, it is unsurprising that renewable energy has taken the back burner.

Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition) was established in the 1980s. It was created to phase out nuclear power and cut carbon emissions while building up Germany’s renewable energy sources. Because Germany has one of the largest economies in the Western industrialized world, it is viable for the U.S. to use Germany as a model for transitioning to renewable energy, which the U.S. will eventually have to do. According to Robert Fares, a member of the German-American Chamber of Commerce Transatlantic Program for Young Technology Leaders delegation, Energiewende uses a top-down strategy that relies on government investment to transform the energy system. The U.S. has not instituted a national energy policy since the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which focuses more on fuel economy and constructing more efficient industrial and commercial buildings than long-term renewable energy solutions. While this is notable since industrial and commercial buildings and cars (or transportation in general) are major energy consumers, I worry that this act, now eight years old, is not moving quickly enough to address the environmental problem at hand. It may only put a loose bandage on the United States’ energy consumption issue.

While the U.S. has made gains through individual state policies, “petroleum is the largest share of U.S. primary energy consumption, followed by natural gas, and coal,” according to the Energy Information Administration. Lined up with China and India, both of which have populations well over one billion, the U.S. consumes twice as much oil as China and six times as much oil as India in one day, according to the CIA World Factbook’s 2014 estimate. The EIA projects that the U.S. will likely use nonrenewable resources through 2040. Petroleum is thoroughly ingrained in the U.S. infrastructure, and it is difficult to imagine life without it. This makes transitioning to renewable energy sources much more difficult because much of the infrastructure would have to adapt to renewable energy, which could be quite costly. According to the EIA, this very reason is why the U.S. uses as little renewable energy as it does. Not only is renewable energy more expensive to produce, but also it is not always available (though this issue could be tended to if many renewable resources were utilized more fully).

How is it, then, that Germany has been so successful in transitioning to renewable energy given the numerous industries it has to support? Germany has incentivized producing renewable energy through feed-in tariffs. Energy consumers can purchase a feed-in tariff-eligible renewable electricity generation facility, such as a solar panel on their roof, and the government gives them a set price from the cost of their utilities for all the electricity they generate and provide to the grid. There is the challenge of having a big enough energy infrastructure to support all the energy, though. With a large enough energy infrastructure, Germany’s electricity prices are expected to lower. This makes it possible for Germany to be both a global green leader and an industrial powerhouse. Industries that use a great deal of energy will be able to operate at the same level, but with lowered carbon emissions. It is true that the cost of renewable energy is high at the start; however, renewable energy is an investment in our future and the environment’s future, and the initial cost of instituting renewable energy is nothing compared to the massive costs of the numerous environmental transgressions that result from fossil fuel use. Germany is a success story that, with a few amendments, could be adopted by the U.S. while requiring few concessions of our varied lifestyles.

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