Bike Reporter Energy Travel

Biking the Solar Roofs of Southern Germany, to See the Change You Wish to Be

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

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My mom and stepdad live in a small village between Lindau and Wangen in the Allgäu region of South Germany, not far from the Swiss and Austrian borders. It’s a long story of how they settled in the foothills of the Alps and I in the hills of San Francisco, but for the last decade or so I have been making the trip to this rural area of Germany almost every year. During this decade, and in fact for much longer than that, very little has changed in this rather traditional, agricultural patch of Earth.

Cows munching on grass and flowers in endless meadows…

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Farmers going about their business…

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Locals buying fresh food directly from their farmers…

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and people hanging out in the pedestrian zones and marketplaces of their medieval home towns…

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And yet, there is one thing that has changed in this sleepy place. In fact, the entire landscape has been completely transformed in the few years I’ve been coming here. One of the Allgäu’s most visible and distinct landmarks, its steeply pitched, gabled roofs, have morphed from the quiet, shingled beauties of yore…

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into shining symbols of 21st century technology and the country’s Herculean efforts to transform its energy grid…

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Please join me on a bike tour of these solar roofs that I put together for the Hummingbird blogathon on Daily Kos. Hummingbird represents the spirit of doing what we can, against all odds and conventional wisdom. In this case, it is the grassroots activists and “environmental idiots” fighting for a clean energy revolution for over 30 years, shifting hearts and minds, little by little, all the way up to top levels of government, that have made what was thought to be deluded and impossible not too long ago into a common cause among all citizens, liberal or conservative.

Biking the Solar Roofs of Southern Germany

to See the Change You Wish to Be

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Whenever I hang out with my folks there is a better than average chance that we will ride our bikes. It’s not just that we like being outdoors and get our hearts pumping, but in this part of Germany, as in many others, it’s simply fun to ride along the many trails and backroads weaving through villages and forests, crossing paths with only the occasional car, tractor, pedestrian, cow, or kitty cat.

So it was on this fine day two years ago, when my stepdad Tom and I went for a ride. Yes sure, we were going to get some cheese and fruits from the farmers in the next village, but more than anything we just wanted to get out and pedal. Mom had decided to stay home and tend to her tomatoes, so Tom and I grabbed the bikes and got on the road that runs right by my folks’ house.

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the signs reads “please drive carefully, this could be your child”

But there was one other thing I was after that day. It was the summer of 2011, and Chancellor Angela Merkel had just done her dizzying u-turn in the wake of Fukushima by announcing an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors and get to 80 percent renewables by 2050.

This commitment to renewables wasn’t really revolutionary in and of itself, as the 2000 Renewable Energy Act had already boosted the country’s share of renewable electricity from 5% to 17% by 2010, through feed-in tariffs that provide incentives to renewable energy producers. But a center-right coalition not only signing on but accelerating Germany’s transition from fossil fuel and nuclear power to renewable energy was a pretty stunning breakthrough.

This shift in energy sources had become quite visible over the last few years, and I felt like it was important to provide a visual accompaniment to all the stunning numbers. So I brought my camera on our ride.

A minute from my folks’ house we passed by the neighbor’s barn house. If you listen really hard, you can hear a moooooo coming through the window…

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The integrated farm/residence is quite common in this part of the country, and as if the contrast between the wooden barns and the white plastered homes weren’t pretty enough, the solar panels take it to another aesthetic level…

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As this is also a popular recreational region, many farmers also run bed & breakfasts out of their farm houses.

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There’s a very practical reason why many farmers have chosen to put solar installations on their roofs. The big surface of their roofs enables them to produce much more energy than they need, and they can thus sell back the excess energy into the grid.

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But really, there’s no surface too small to cover with solar panels. Pretty much all new homes are covered…

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and a lot of sheds put to good use…

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Even those who aren’t in it to make money put up a few panels to reduce their energy consumption. My mom had 3 panels installed, and they meet all the hot water needs in the house (and yes, Germans don’t take a shower every single day)

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We got to our first destination, a fruit stand on the side of the farmer’s house where you just leave your money and take your cherries…

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before hitting up the cheese shop, where we were greeted by the dairy farmer himself, as well as a local delicacy, the “Peppered Little Ass — so spicy you just want to take a bite”….

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We continued down the road before Tom pulled up to a particularly cute farm house…

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to stop for a chat with his adorable farmer friends….

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Next we rode through Meckatz, a tiny little town famous for its independent regional brewery. Here you can see that it’s not just big farm houses but single family homes as well as apartment buildings that have gone solar…

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And lest you think being religious or conservative would have any adverse effects on solar power, this is a very common sight in a community that has only one Green and one Social Democrat in the town council compared to 7 Christian Democrats and 7 Independents. It’s the “conserving energy is conservative” line of thinking…

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Keeping the faith in heavenly energy

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Then it was back into the countryside….

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for some alpine views…

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and the second most important activity on any decent Allgäu bike tour, a swim in a beautiful mountain lake (Waldsee)….

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followed by the most important one, two big steins of cold Meckatzer…

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And that was our ride. In the two years since, much has happened with Germany’s Energiewende. Last year, German solar power producers set a new world record in solar energy production by pumping 14.7 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity (4.5% of the total power production!) into the power grid during the first 6 months. Total renewable energy contributions – including wind, solar panels, bio-energies and hydropower – rose to 23 percent, a 9.3 percent increase from 2011. An estimated 377,000 people were employed in the renewables sector, compared to 182,000 in all of the country’s other energy sectors combined.

This summer, the grey-skied country broke its monthly solar power generation record once again, logging 5.1 TWh of electricity from solar power. The government announced that it will begin scaling back its feed-in tariff, meaning that Germany’s solar grid has been brought up to a scale where “soft” costs associated with solar installation no longer need to be subsidized, and in fact, are starting to overtake fossil fuels on a level playing field.

This is not to say that there haven’t been any growing pains and kinks to be worked out, but it is quite amazing how far the country has come in such a short time. There are those who still say it’s too expensive or it can’t work, but I think they always conveniently forget the true cost of continuing on the path we’re on: continued resource depletion, runaway climate change, and dangerous nuclear waste passed down to generations yet unborn.

Putting solar panels on every barn seems like an eminently more surmountable challenge than coping with the alternative if we don’t.

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o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O

crossposted at Daily Kos

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Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

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