Renewable Energy and Railways in Germany

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Germany is moving from primarily nuclear energy to a goal of using 100% renewables by 2050. Energiewende, which means ‘energy change’, is a movement to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power with solar, wind and biomass. Today, 25% of Germany’s energy comes from renewables, and that number is expected to increase to 35 or 40% as soon as 2020.

Chancellor Angela Merkel introduced the nuclear phase-out in 2011. The emotional reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan was to close all nuclear plants by 2022. This wasn’t realistically feasible, and that date was pushed back to 2050.

Renewable energy in demand in Germany

The people want renewable energy, and they are making it happen by installing it on their homes and businesses. Individuals, communities and cooperatives, not large utilities, own the majority of Germany’s solar capacity.

It’s also the people who are demanding the state-owned German railway, Deutsche Bahn (DB), be powered by renewable energy. Train travel is already the most environmentally friendly means of transportation, because more people and freight can be transported for the least amount of fuel and CO2 emissions released.

DB German Renewable railways

Photo: Sebastian Terfloth

Green transportation infrastructure

Still, customers want rail travel to be even greener. They would like to see trains powered by clean electricity instead of the traditional nuclear power and fossil fuels. DB is aware that retrofitting and upgrading will be expensive. An increased customer base and energy savings will offset the costs, though, making it worthwhile.

DB moves almost 2 billion people and 415 tons of freight a year with 2% of the total electricity use in the country. Today, 20% of the long-distance system is powered by renewables, and that number is expected to be 33% by next year and incrementally raised to 100% by 2050. Local train systems, such as that in Hamburg, are already powered completely by renewable energy.

Solar train stations

DB plans to install solar on the rooftops of its stations, and it has made contracts with hydropower and wind power companies. The hydro will supply about 8% of the DB’s needs. As of March 2013, wind power from 48 turbines provides 24% of DB’s energy. Management says 75% of long distance service will be powered with renewable energy by April 2013.

Aside from providing green power, trains will be more aerodynamic and energy consumption will be reduced.

Obstacles of success

One expensive obstacle is improving and adding to the grid to accommodate the projected increase in use. Billions of dollars in funding needs to be sought. Power storage is the other major obstacle. The sun may not shine (Germany actually gets as much sun as Alaska!) or the wind may not blow, so when power is generated, it needs to be stored for such times.

The game has changed

Fukushima changed the minds of Germany, DB and many other countries around the world. It’s a shame it took a tragedy like that for people to wake up to the dangers of nuclear power, but the upside is that DB and Germany have stopped resisting renewable energy and are pushing quickly to decommission their nuclear power plants.

Germany has become the world leader in renewable energy over the last couple of years. I hope this sets a precedent for other countries stuck on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

But Germany’s progress also goes to show that citizens can make a difference!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.