Something for Italy to rub in Germany’s (proverbial) face

There ain’t much these days. Italy’s been sitting on the precipice of default while Germany’s been sitting pretty, and German austerity demands have literally reduced the Italian welfare minister to tears. But by one important measure — albeit not one people are talking about much these days — Italy has left Germany in the dust: Italy is now the world’s leader in solar photovoltaic installations. And Germany will have a tough time regaining its #1 spot, given that its solar subsidies are set to be halved.

German innovation: turning coal mines into renewable energy

I’ve written at length about Germany’s struggle to make a quick transition from nuclear power to clean energy. But really, that transition is a shadow of the biggest overhaul the German energy economy is facing, the move away from coal. Coal is Germany’s leading electricity source. Historically, it’s not only been central to the Germany economy; it was also a major driving force behind the predecessors to the EU. And as in America, there are concerns about what’ll happen to the regional economies of coal-producing areas — like the Ruhrgebiet in western Germany — once the mines start to shut down.

Luckily, Germans are an innovative bunch. One of the leading coal mining companies in the Ruhr Valley is developing a plan to convert its mines into hydroelectric energy sources. Quick background: Germany produces a ton of renewable energy, but it’s inconsistent, since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, and it’s difficult to store. One method of storage would be to use excess energy (on windy or sunny days) to pump water upward, and then to allow it to cascade down through energy-producing turbines when power is scarce. The problem is that, absent good natural locations for these turbines, this takes a lot of construction.

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As if the German government didn’t have enough on its plate…

In my story in the New Republic Monday on environmental politics in Germany, I laid out a few ways in which the country’s overnight abandonment of nuclear power has backfired. Add another to the list: Lawsuits.

The Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has decided to sue the German government for shutting down the reactors it operates in Germany. The company says it invested €700 million in its German reactors after the Merkel administration decided last year to extend the operating life of nuclear plants. Now, with the post-Fukushima reversal, those investments are worthless. And Vattenfall’s asking for €1 billion in compensation. Two other energy companies have already sued the government in connection with the nuclear shutdown.

The phaseout of nuclear power is in many ways desirable: It helps allow for the development of renewable energy sources, and it removes the potential for a meltdown or attack. But the Merkel administration’s reversal was so hasty that it opened the door to some negative consequences that were probably avoidable: the short-term need to import coal and nuclear power from Germany’s neighbors, sharply rising energy costs, and now lawsuits.

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