Two competing narratives emerge in a tale of an industrial giant going green.

In the middle of a sunny Saturday in May 2012, Germans did something unprecedented: They produced a record 22 gigawatts of electricity from solar panels, enough — for a short period of time — to meet nearly half of the country’s needs. The feat generated headlines around the world.

The story of how Germany achieved its solar prowess is emerging as a matter of fierce public debate about whether and how the United States should invest in renewable energy.

The Yale Forum reported in March that American conservatives often refer to public investment in renewable energy, such as the loan to failed solar-cell manufacturer Solyndra, as wasteful boondoggles. Fossil fuels, they argue, are here to stay.

And as Elisabeth Rosenthal put it in The New York Times, “much of America continues to regard renewable power as a boutique product, cool but otherworldly.”

In this context, the fact that Germany — the world’s fourth-largest economy — is setting ambitious renewable-energy goals is a rhetorically powerful counterexample. Soon after Germany achieved its record-setting 22 gigawatts, for instance, respected Canadian activist David Suzuki published a column headlined “Germany shows the rest of the world that renewable is doable.”

But in the telling of Germany’s renewable energy accomplishments by some other commentators, many of them conservative, the German approach is a tale of a country gone astray, an investment in a costly, unworkable program with little benefit.

Photo of wind turbines in Germany

“As long as wind turbines and solar panels remain more expensive than fossil fuels while working only intermittently, they will never contribute much to our energy supply,” Bjorn Lomborg, Danish academic and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, wrote in Newsweek in late May 2012. “Germany, the world’s largest per capita consumer of solar energy, produces just 0.3 percent of its energy this way. And to achieve this No. 1 status, the country has paid $130 billion for $12 billion worth of energy,” Lomborg continued. “The net reduction in CO2 emissions will slow the pace of global warming just 23 hours by the end of the century.”

A number of media outlets, while acknowledging the promise of Germany’s experiment, have also described some of the complex realities of putting it into practice. Shutting down nuclear plants has, at least for now, increased Germany’s coal use, The Washington Post reported in February. Europe’s debt crisis is squeezing funds available to subsidize renewables, and cheap Chinese solar panels threaten to put some German manufacturers out of business.

At Slate, Andrew Curry reported that some Germans worry that investments in solar energy have come at a cost to other renewable sources. “Even environmentalists have begun to grumble about the solar boom, which sucks up half of Germany’s funding for renewables but provides just 20 percent of green power,” he wrote.

But for many commentators, the German story is either an example of a clean, green future available to the U.S. — or a boondoggle in the making. These two divergent narratives are prominent in U.S. coverage of the issue, according to a Yale Forum analysis that illustrates that the debate over renewable energy is far from over.

An Energy Transformation

Germany’s shift toward solar energy is part of the so-called Energiewende (“energy transition”), a plan to cut greenhouse emissions and gain energy independence by refusing reliance on fossil fuels. About a quarter of the country’s electricity is generated from solar, wind, and biomass, according to Inside Climate News.

Germany is also transitioning away from nuclear power. After the Fukushima disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a plan to close the country’s remaining reactors within a decade. The government says it is aiming to power its grid with 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.

In the U.S., former President Bill Clinton has pitched the German example as a path to job creation.

“This weekend, Germany became the first country in history to generate 22 gigawatts of electricity from the sun,” Clinton said in a June 2012 speech in New York. “That doesn’t mean much to you, so I’ll tell you in plain language what it means. That’s as much as 20 big nuclear power plants. And they have generated over 300,000 new jobs out of it. They’re a fourth our size, and only half as capable to generate solar energy. If we did what they did, that’s a million jobs alone.”

A Choice

Some writers are portraying Germany’s achievements as the result of deliberate policy choices.

The New York Times’ Rosenthal raised questions about the narrative that the U.S. will burn fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

“But, increasingly, scientific research and the experience of other countries should prompt us to ask: To what extent will we really ‘need’ fossil fuel in the years to come? To what extent is it a choice?” she wrote.

The German renewable energy story is the subject of a six-part series by journalist Osha Gray Davidson, published by Inside Climate News, the news website that recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its national reporting on pipeline safety issues.

In Davidson’s telling, the German energy transition has been fueled by grassroots citizen action in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. Government policies, such as the feed-in-tariff — which have enabled any resident to sell renewable energy to the grid at a premium price — are encouraging ordinary citizens to install solar panels and wind turbines.

Davidson asked one German energy leader about the problem of energy storage. That expert, Davidson reported, “immediately corrected my terminology. ‘It is not a problem,’ he insisted. ‘It is a task.’”

Photo of solar energy installation in Germany
A solar energy installation in North Germany.

Writing for The New York Times, David Crane, president of an energy company, and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. argued that the U.S., too, should adopt policies to speed solar permitting and boost panel installations.

“It can take as little as eight days to license and install a solar system on a house in Germany,” they wrote. “In the United States, depending on your state, the average ranges from 120 to 180 days. More than one million Germans have installed solar panels on their roofs.”

In the Los Angeles Times, writer and activist Bill McKibben also cited the German example as a model for U.S. action:

We have to figure out how to keep that coal and oil and gas in the ground so it never gets burned, and the only way to do that is by speeding up the transition to renewable energy. That will require spending on research, and it will require a stiff price on carbon to spur conservation. That will be hard, but it’s not impossible. Germany is the one big country that’s taken this crisis seriously, and there were days this summer when it generated more than half its power from solar panels within its borders. Germany’s program isn’t perfect, but then, Germany doesn’t have Florida and Arizona and New Mexico and the California desert.

Casting Doubt

But just as activists portrayed Germany as evidence that renewable energy could be viable, others in the U.S. media have offered a chorus of doubt. Offered a real-life case of a big economy taking a renewable path, they appear eager to discredit the example.

“German consumers are waking up to the costs of going green: As of Jan. 1, they are paying 11 percent more for electricity than they did last year,” wrote USA Today columnist Sumi Somaskanda in March 2013.

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, climate skeptic Benita Dodd argued that Germany’s energy goal “is proving so unaffordable that manufacturing industries — and their jobs — are leaving the country.”

Charles Lane, a Washington Post opinion writer, reported that 200,000 Germans lost power in 2011 because they couldn’t pay their electric bills. “Democrats try to square this circle by talking up ‘green jobs,’ but expensive electricity is bad for industry, as Germany is discovering. Fact is, subsidies for green energy do not so much create jobs as shift them around.”

Fox News Commentator: Germany Has ‘More Sun Than We Do’

On a February 7, 2013 broadcast of the Fox News conservative opinion talk show “Fox & Friends,” Gretchen Carlson host told viewers that as subsidies dry up, the future of the U.S. solar industry is looking dim.

But then her co-host, Steve Doocy, mentioned that solar energy was “working out great” for Germany.

“What was Germany doing correct? Are they just a smaller country, and that made it more feasible?” Carlson wondered.

Carlson’s guest, Fox News business reporter Shibani Joshi, had an answer.

“They’re a smaller country, and they’ve got lots of sun,” she said. “They’ve got a lot more sun than we do.”

“In California it’s a great solution, but here on the East Coast it’s just not going to work,” Joshi added.

In fact, writers for Slate and Grist have pointed out, Germany receives about the same amount of solar energy as Alaska. As Slate writer Will Oremus put it, “virtually the entirety of the continental United States gets more sun than even the sunniest part of Germany.”

Joshi acknowledged the error in a column the next day.

“I incorrectly stated that the chief difference between the U.S. and Germany’s success with solar installations had to do with climate differences,” she wrote. “In fact, the difference come down more to subsidies and political priorities and has nothing to with sunshine.”

Still, solar energy only supplies less than 1 percent of U.S. power, she argued, and the industry doesn’t generate as many jobs as other energy sources. Instead of solar, the U.S. should focus its resources on extracting natural gas, she said.

In other words, she and other writers seemed to be saying, even if Germany is successful in adopting renewables, the right path for the U.S. still lies with fossil fuels.

It’s all part of the continuing pro/con exchanges that experts anticipate will dominate renewable energy public policy dialogue in the U.S. for some time to come. The issue then becomes whether the eventual outcomes improve or just delays the transition to more renewable energy that at some point appears inevitable.

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Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...