Building a Sustainable Future for Asia: What can Asia Learn from Germany’s Energiewende
As the world confronts the ever-destructive impact of climate change, which has generated a higher frequency of extreme weather conditions in recent years, the world has increasingly shifted its attention to varying mechanisms to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gasses -- predominantly from the consumption of hydrocarbon energy resources -- in the atmosphere.
Ongoing efforts over establishing robust climate mitigation and adaptation regimes, however, have been undermined by the reluctance of the world’s largest economies, both in the Industrialized West as well as among the biggest emerging markets in Asia, to subject their existing development paradigm to any form of external scrutiny and legally-binding constraints. Nonetheless, the European Union (EU) has vociferously pushed for a new global climate consensus to expedite the transition of the world economy towards a renewable future -- precipitating the retrenchment of hydrocarbon-intensive models of growth, which have become increasingly unsustainable and climate-disruptive.
For decades, neo-liberal capitalism has been anchored by a dangerous myth: Any transition to a Renewable Energy-based (RE) economic model will be too costly, disruptive, and unaffordable. And despite the growing alarm over the reliability and affordability of conventional sources of energy (think of continued geopolitical crisis in the Middle East), it is precisely this myth that has encouraged many rapidly-developing economies to resist any decisive reform and transformation of their hydrocarbon-driven economic expansion in recent decades. But thanks to the experience of countries such as Germany -- among the world’s leading industrial powers – this myth is rapidly falling apart. In the past four decades, growing safety, environmental, and fiscal concerns over nuclear technology -- coupled with lingering anxieties over excessive reliance on hydrocarbon resources, mostly imported from unstable regions -- has encouraged the European powerhouse to gradually shift towards RE to feed its industrial expansion, ensure the safety of its citizens, and protect its environment.
Far from suffering an economic reversal as a result of its Energiewende (energy transformation) policy, Germany has emerged as a major producer and innovator in the realm of green technology. This has not only ensured greater energy security for the country, but also it has created large-scale employment and business opportunities in the cutting-edge RE sector. And for this reason, Germany has emerged as a leading model for countries around the world, both developed and developing, which have realized the urgent necessity to decouple from conventional energy resources and decisively push for a sustainable energy paradigm.
Fortunately, the success of Germany has encouraged countries around the world to revisit their current energy paradigm, and contemplate a post-hydrocarbon-based economy, inspiring even the oil-rich monarchies in the Persian Gulf to collectively launch multi-billion-dollar solar-power energy plants and other forms of RE projects -- hoping this could diversify their domestic economies, reduce their reliance on (declining) hydrocarbon resources, and pave the way for a sustainable energy paradigm.
This Quarterly builds on the previous issue, entitled “Towards a Green Economy in Asia: The Perils of Nuclear Technology and the Future of Renewable Energy”, by taking a deeper look into Germany’s famed Energiewende policy, which holds the promise of leading the world towards a sustainable economic paradigm amid growing concerns over climate change and affordability of conventional energy resources.
An Evolving Energy Landscape
Recently, the Philippines inaugurated the Phase I of San Carlos Solar Energy Inc. (SaCaSol), the country’s biggest solar plant located in San Carlos Economic Zone (SCEZ), Negros Occidental. The project, a PV solar facility perched on a 350,000 square-meter area, is a joint venture between ThomasLloyd, an international investment management group, and Bronzeoak Philippines, a local clean energy developer. Conergy, a leading German solar company, played a key role in the development of the SaCaSol, with Phase I and Phase II of the project having 13 MW and 9 MW power generation capacities, respectively.
Under the project, power will be supplied at a pre-determined feed-in-tariff (Fit) rate, set by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), of PHP 9.68/kWh. Expected to finish by mid-2014, the SaCaSol plant is set to produce around 35,000 MW hours per year, providing power to about 13,000 households in the country, and expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 18,820 tons per year. The project represents a milestone in the Philippines’ efforts to become more energy self-sufficient, optimizing latest technology advancements in the Renewable Energy (RE) industry.
But the energy picture is more complicated than it seems.
‘[Philippine] President Aquino…has aggressively championed coal energy,’ argues Risa Hontiveros in the Quarterly, underlying the continued preference for conventional energy resources among leading Filipino policy-makers. ‘So far the President has resisted [efforts at reviving the] Bataan nuclear power plant, but he has said, though openly yet non-commitally to renewable energy advocacies, “Show me how it works”.’
In fact, the Philippines, which has among the most diversified energy mix structures in Asia, is by no means unique in terms of its relatively low appreciation for RE development.
“Except for Singapore, most Southeast Asian countries have been slow to cut back emissions mainly because of costs and lack of technology,” argues Malaysian energy expert Gurmit Singh K. S. in the Quarterly, mapping the relatively week policy responses to the challenge of climate change in the region. “Most of the Energy Policies examined seem to lack comprehensiveness and hardly address the issue of sustainability.”
Amid growing volatilities in global energy markets, thanks to intermittent geopolitical disruptions in hydrocarbon exporting regions of Eurasia and the Middle East, more Asian countries have come to appreciate the necessity to diversify their energy mix, with countries such as China emerging as a green technology leader in the world. Given the tremendous potentials of RE in Asia, leading RE companies from around the world, especially Germany, have come to play a key role in building a sustainable energy landscape in rapidly-developing countries such as the Philippines.
The increasing intensity of climate change, which has led to more extreme weather events across the world, especially in archipelagic countries such as the Philippines, has also raised the urgency for mitigating the negative impact of CO2 emissions from conventional hydrocarbon resources such as coal, oil, and gas. And this has encouraged the established of climate-resilient, RE-based energy policies. As a result, RE-development has become both an economic and existential imperative.
“[In recent decades] Germany has also been in the process of decommissioning its nuclear power plants [But] there has been no shortage of electricity as a result of the latter,” explains Maitet Diokno in the Quarterly, a leading energy policy expert in the Philippines. “In fact, comparative data shows that electricity generated by nuclear power plants is the most expensive option today.” 1
Crucially, as Diokno notes in her article, Germany has enjoyed tremendous economic dividends from transitioning towards an RE-based economy: “New jobs in the RE sector as of this year have numbered 300,000—ten times more than the jobs lost as a result of decommissioning nuclear power plants.” No wonder, the private sector, especially financial institutions, have shown growing interest in investing in Germany’s booming RE sector.
The nuclear technology, long touted as the ultimate source of clean energy, has become ever more controversial, with governments and concerned citizens across the world realizing the exorbitant risks and costs associated with building, maintaining, and decommissioning nuclear power plants. Shrouded in bureaucratic mystery, countries such as Japan and South Korea have anxiously discovered glaring safety issues inherent to the nuclear industry -- prompting industrial powers such as Germany to move towards a post-nuclear, RE-based energy paradigm in recent years.
‘The Japanese anti-nuclear movement completely changed before and after [2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster],’ argues Japan’s Member of House of Councillors (the upper-house of Japan’s parliament) Mizuho Fukushima in an exclusive interview with Socdem Asia Quarterly. ‘[Before], many people were a part of the myth of nuclear “safety”: most in the large cities didn’t know that their power was being sent in from [places out in the periphery such as] Niigata or Fukushima, and few were aware of the dangers of nuclear power plants in the event of an earthquake.’
One must note, ongoing and/or proposed nuclear projects across Asia, from Malaysia to Turkey and Vietnam, are largely a reflection of the influence of the global “nuclear lobby” -- private and state-led – and the top-down nature of decision-making in these countries. There has been minimal consultation with the citizenry, and the economics of proposed nuclear projects, as many experts note, are highly dubious, to say the least. Nonetheless, the push towards RE-based has been undermined by the lingering obsession with nuclear technology.
“The Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) and Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) revealed that the Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) project has tiptoed to an advanced stage of development, and expected to be given the green light this year,” explains Malaysian assemblyman Chan Foong Hin in the Quarterly, reflecting the stubborn preference among some Southeast Asian countries for the outdated, nuclear option. “Our steps toward transition to RE is slow. [It was only] in 2011 [that the] Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) [was] set up as the government agency in charge of RE development.”
In Japan, a nation-wide consensus on building a post-nuclear energy policy, under the auspices of the center-left government under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has been undermined by the re-emergence of a right-wing government in 2013.
“However, unfortunately, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which for many years after the war pursued pro-nuclear policies, returned to power in December 2012,” explains Japanese Member of Parliament (Diet) Abe Tomoko in another exclusive interview with the Quarterly, describing the worrying implications of recent political developments on the nuclear industry in Japan. “This has led to a situation which absolutely does not align with Japanese citizens' ideas, particularly if we consider the LDPs push to restart the [currently idled] 50 nuclear power plants, as well as export Japan's nuclear power plant [technology abroad].”
But among citizens and a growing number of experts and policy-makers, nuclear technology has become an untenable solution to the looming energy crisis in Asia, as booming economies across the world chase a shrinking and volatile supply of conventional energy resources, notwithstanding the recent discovery and development of “dirty oil” and other forms of unconventional hydrocarbon resources in North America, Latin America, and Africa.
“As we look ahead further into this Asian Century, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Asia is accessing clean, safe, affordable and secure sources of energy,” argues Roberto Verzola in the Quarterly, a leading environmental advocate in the Philippines. “But Asia's very rich renewable energy resources like solar, wind and geothermal have the potential to help the region meet this challenge.”
After all, experts from around the world have emphasized how the current prices of conventional energy resources dangerously and mistakenly omit their social (health) and environmental costs. As countries around the world tighten their environmental policies, and reduce their subsidies for oil and gas consumption, the real price of hydrocarbon resources is set to encourage a greater interest in RE technologies. Also, the cycles of “creative destruction”, combined with strategic state support, in the RE sector has also dramatically reduced the cost of, among other things, solar panels and other forms of RE technology.
The German Experience
But how do we actually transition to an RE-based economy? Is there a viable model for Asia to anchor a new energy policy vision?
Recently, a group of 10 progressive energy experts and Members of the Parliament, selected from four different countries which included Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and The Philippines, participated in the tour, organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippine Office (FES). The seven-day study tour focused on the transformation of energy supply in Germany (Energiewende) for politicians, experts, advocates, and academics from Southeast and East Asia entitled “Energiewende – The Transition to Renewable Energy Supply in Germany”.
The rationale behind the study tour was to provide Asian participants with concrete ideas on how one of the most highly-industrialized countries like Germany has managed to maintain energy security and economic dynamism alongside a large-scale transition to renewable energy. As part of the tour, the participants visited, among others, a to-be-decommissioned nuclear power plant in Rheinsberg and the lignite mining and lignite-fired power plant complex in Jänschwalde, and an exhibition that portrays the history of the uranium mining and the gigantic remediation costs in Saxony and Thuringia. They also got to explore a waste-to-energy plant in Berlin and learned about energy production out of waste recycling.
Above all, the participants visited Feldheim, a renewable energy-based village in Germany -- a path-breaking “green community” -- that has become a model for renewable energy production and consumption as it was able to, among other things, establish more than 40 large-scale wind turbines, create its own biogas production facility, and control its own local heating and electricity grid in recent decades. The participants were also able to meet representatives and leading experts on green technology and climate change in Germany, specifically from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the German Parliament Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development, the German Parliament Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy, the German Energy Agency, the Agora Energeiwende, and the Institute for Ecological Economic Research.
This edition of Quarterly contains views from the participants of the recent FES-organized trip to Germany, analysis from leading energy experts vis-à-vis the existing energy paradigm in Asia and RE potential in the region, as well as exclusive interviews with leading RE advocates in Japan’s legislature. The aim of the Quarterly is to shed light on the unsustainability of the existing energy policies in Asia, and the viability and urgent necessity of pushing for an RE-based energy paradigm in the coming years and decades.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, among other leading publications.
1 The costs of decommissioning and comprehensively dismantling nuclear power plants are often underestimated. For instance, Germany began decommissioning the Rheinsburg nuclear power plant in the mid-1990s, with the aim of finalizing the decommissioning operation by 2012. After more than two decades, the process is yet to finish, while conservative estimates on the costs of fully decommissioning a single nuclear reactor block has reached as high as €560 euros