On the first day of my Renewable Energy Systems course before diving into the details of renewable energy technology, my professor, a very inquisitive, experienced, and energetic guy, asked us to discuss the concepts of ideology and reality. How does an idea or goal come to be accepted by a society? Why?
In the U.S., and especially in my coal-burning state, the discourse surrounding energy issues often comes back to ideas of what is “realistic.” Those stuck to the status quo, lukewarm environmentalists, and fossil fuel fanatics alike will employ the term to undermine the possibility and importance of transforming our energy mix. “It’s just not realistic, not now,” they’ll say in response to ideas of a sun, wind, wave-powered society.
I never quite know how to respond, not because there aren’t answers but because there are too many to choose from. Should we talk about financial feasibility, raising points of public-private-partnerships, pay-back times, government subsidies? Should I send them a portfolio of peer-reviewed articles? Pull up the websites for commercially-available technologies? Launch into a history of the social, political, violent, and economic ills the fossil fuel industry has bred?
Throughout these past weeks in Denmark (and now, Germany), I’ve had countless exciting opportunities to learn about the very real ways communities and entire nations are making the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Both Denmark and Germany have set the goal of going completely renewable by 2050 or sooner, and very few are saying it’s impossible.
After the oil crises of the 1970s, Denmark started seriously considering its other energy options. Many people realized the massive potential for harnessing the wind, but there were many barriers. The technology was hardly developed, and the government was largely opposed to the idea.
Determined Danish citizens banded together, built the first turbines with little to no expertise, illegally connecting them to the grid. They refused to believe harvesting renewable energy was an impossible feat. It’s a long (and ongoing) story, but that was essentially the birth of the now flourishing Danish wind industry, which currently supplies more than 40% of Denmark’s total electricity.
Cooperatives of rural farmers, similarly, were the primary champions of the wind industry in Germany, with support from the government in the form of a 20-year feed-in tariff and an entire political initiative for the energy transition: Energiewende.
My class has learned all about the German energy transition as we’ve traveled from rural German wind farms to Berlin’s innovative political, research, and environmental organizations. There are people in all sectors working towards radical change, and it’s inspiring to see.
We still have a long way to go. We all, even Germany and Denmark, do. But throughout Session 2, I’m learning that “radical” doesn’t always just mean “extreme”, it means looking at the roots of an issue and finding the real solutions. We must embrace renewables as a fundamental part of the strategy to solve the world’s most critical issues, including climate change and social injustice. With Europe as my classroom, I’m so lucky to be learning how to do just that.