As delegates in Paris debate climate change, Grant Bradley visits a country spending billions on the move to clean energy

For Berliner Anke Seemann, Germany's energy transformation is the chance to exercise her green conscience.

She's willing to pay up to 10 Euros ($16) extra a month to buy from a power supplier which guarantees the energy is from a renewables sector which is growing fast as her country phases out nuclear power.

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"It's the better choice and there's no more nuclear, if this is the way, well, that is good." She's acutely aware of new standards and that Germany is leading Europe, in ambition at least, to cut carbon emissions by reducing energy use and moving towards more renewable power generation.

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Seemann, a hotel front office manager, is proud of the programme and her friends are on board. They buy energy-saving lightbulbs and she looks for the top energy-saving sticker on appliances.

"Some people think it's too expensive to buy energy but it pays in the long run."

The energy transformation -- energiewende in German -- is less personal for Daniel Hempelmann, 37, of Bielefeld, near Hanover, who is in Alexanderplatz near the famous world clock where East Germans once looked at the names of countries they had little hope of visiting.

He too is pleased that Germany is decommissioning its nuclear plants. "The finish of nuclear energy is very important," he says. "I think this clean energy is good but nobody wants a windmill in their back yard."

Going green -- at a cost

There's a long green tradition in German politics and this has filtered down to street level. In Leipzig, in the former East, disgust at rivers running red because of contamination from lignite further upstream sowed the seeds of citizen agitation which eventually led to that city's key role in overthrowing the communist regime.

Successive polls have since shown widespread support for the energiewende, even though it has pushed up power prices, faced growing opposition from some traditional generators and its rollout has been spotty and marred by mis-steps.

Polls cited by the Clean Energy Wire, a non-profit information service, say more than 90 per cent of the public supported the energiewende, despite consumer power bills that are the second-highest in the European Union.

According to Bloomberg news agency figures, German consumers including private citizens, shopowners and companies have paid $171 billion since 2000 to finance the clean-energy expansion, through a charge added to their bills.

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At Chancellor Angela Merkel's command, Germany is shutting its remaining nuclear plants by 2022. While it can import power from neighbours -- including big nuclear generator France and gas exporter Norway -- should it ever run into shortages, at present it is a net exporter.

The wind farm projects around Germany's northern coast are massive and solar panel installations have grown more quickly than crops on the country's rolling farmland, but so have some smaller scale projects unique to Germany.

Rising from the ruins

One is a "swords to ploughshares" project begun almost a decade ago in the Wilhelmsburg district of Hamburg, in a giant WWII flak tower. It was one of dozens of such towers that Hitler built with forced labour, as places to station anti-aircraft guns and to shelter tens of thousands of citizens from Allied bombing raids. The 12-storey tower was so solid it couldn't be demolished by the British after the war without destroying much of the surrounding district, so in the past decade $50 million has been spent converting it to a biomass and solar power plant to provide up to 3000 homes with heating, and another 1000 homes with electricity.

Wilhelmsburg, on a low-lying island in the Elbe River, was home to tens of thousands of workers from Greece, Turkey and Italy in the 1960s, who worked at the then-thriving port, but their jobs disappeared with containerisation. Economic deprivation followed in an area where land was poisoned by industrial misuse.

The Energy Bunker in a WWII flak tower in Hamburg Germany September 2015 GREEN BUILDINGS picture supplied credit: GRANT BRADLEY NZH 04Dec15 - Clockwise: A nuclear power plant at Emslan
The Energy Bunker in a WWII flak tower in Hamburg Germany September 2015 GREEN BUILDINGS picture supplied credit: GRANT BRADLEY NZH 04Dec15 - Clockwise: A nuclear power plant at Emslan

In 2006 the local council started investing $135 million to revitalise the area, where there are 27,000 homes, with green energy being a catalyst for change.

The revamp revolved around a new energy-efficient, $250 million state energy ministry headquarters and the area is now peppered with different projects. One is an apartment block powered by algae bioreactors (it wasn't operating when The Business visited), there are "water apartments" anchored in large drainage canals and multi-storey larch wood buildings with walls 360mm thick, for strength and insulation. The aim is to be energy self-sufficient and generate power from the island -- wind, solar power and biogas from corn and even human waste.

The green push is on throughout the city. New flat-roofed buildings throughout Hamburg must have solar panels on the roof or be planted in grass or flowers to help reduce CO2 emissions and filter rain water.

An algae-powered apartment in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg, Germany. Photo / Grant Bradley
An algae-powered apartment in Wilhelmsburg, Hamburg, Germany. Photo / Grant Bradley

Getting sparky in Berlin

In the federal capital, the push to go electric is being driven by the Berlin Agency for Electromobility (Emo). There are about 2000 electric vehicles in Berlin and around 24,000 throughout Germany, where Volkswagen and BMW build them.

The agency says a quarter of the vehicles are in shared schemes, and they are recharged at about 500 stations. Berlin, like other European cities, is more reliant on off-street charging than countries such as New Zealand, where many owners can park near their homes.

Martin Salle, project manager of vehicle systems at Emo, says the big push started in 2010 and $240 million in public money was spent to promote electric vehicles in four "showcase regions", including Berlin.

There was a lot of hype a few years ago, but since petrol prices had come down, so has the incentive to go electric, he says. New charging technology is being trialled, including an induction system where a vehicle parks on a pad and its batteries are charged up in minutes, which is being used on a Berlin bus route. Electric cargo bikes are also widely used.

The financial muscle

The financial driver behind the energiewende is KfW bank, founded as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany after WWII and now the country's third biggest bank. It is 80 per cent owned by the federal Government, the remainder by Germany's states, and has a balance sheet of around $700 billion.

Leon Macioszek heads the bank's Berlin office and says it focuses on two main pillars of energy transition: expansion of renewable energy by cheap loans for power generation projects, and increasing energy efficiency by lending money to owners who retrofit their houses or build new ones.

Markus Aichele, an S.A.G. Solarstrom employee, uses a device to check the energy output of solar panels on the roof of the main conference center in Freiburg, Germany. Photo / Grant Bradley
Markus Aichele, an S.A.G. Solarstrom employee, uses a device to check the energy output of solar panels on the roof of the main conference center in Freiburg, Germany. Photo / Grant Bradley

Since 2012 KfW has committed nearly $100 billion to the transition through retail banks, in a process which links the interest rate to how well the building will ultimately perform. The bank gets about 500,000 applications a year for loans -- 300,000 from homes and the rest from small- to medium-sized enterprises. It has spawned an industry for consultants to check work and there are now 2000 to 3000 on the books. There has been broad political support for KfW's work.

Asked when the Government could consider getting out of an industry it established, Macioszek says "yes, I don't think it will come very soon but it should be the thinking of the Government."

Savings going begging in NZ, says expert

The head of the New Zealand agency charged with promoting energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy says more than $1 billion worth of savings for big businesses are going begging in this country.

Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) chief executive Mike Underhill says this country doesn't need to transform its energy mix to the extent Germany has, as New Zealand already generates around 80 per cent of its power from renewables and that share is growing.

However, efficiency measures could be big savers at the country's 200 biggest companies.

In Germany there are subsidies all over the place. Here it's being done without subsidies, which lets you see the cost effectiveness of using renewable energy.

"We believe there is about 20 per cent there to save -- about $1.2 billion," he says. That could be as simple as tuning boilers.

Underhill toured German energy-efficient and sustainable house projects with another expert and journalists, and says New Zealand does not need to subsidise the move to renewables as Germany has done. "New Zealand, from a whole series of perspectives, including good luck, is in a position where we're right at the top of the energiewende.

EECA has a total budget of $58 million, most of which goes into insulating houses. "When you get down to business, the amount that goes in there is $15 million and that largely goes to encouraging energy efficiency," he says.

"We would make funding available to assist evaluating a clean energy option -- we don't make funding available to fund the capital costs of a project."

We're absolutely well-placed but one disadvantage is that we're at the bottom of the world and have the least choice.

Underhill says New Zealand banks could help in the residential market by tagging the $2000 or $3000 inducements they offer to new borrowers to energy saving measures in their homes.

Already, 10 local councils, representing about 65 per cent of the population, offer subsidised loans for home energy-efficiency projects, which can be paid off over 10 years.

Germany's encouragement of electric cars provides some lessons for this country, where there are about 800 plug-ins compared to 24,000 in Germany.

"For car dealers we're a tiny market."

This means New Zealand's shift to electric transport will have to be based largely on buying second-hand fleet vehicles from countries such as Japan and Britain.